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The rise of advanced automation technology can seem like a scene from the The Terminator with machines taking over and rendering humans obsolete. Yet, past technological revolutions are a good indicator that automation will not eliminate human competition but will instead create new opportunities. To prepare for the future of work, we must look to the past to anticipate tomorrow’s opportunities. The future of automation is happening now—and it’s far from the bleak, science-fiction dystopia that it’s sometimes imagined to be.

Back to the Future: Past Trends and the Present

Fear that automation will cause massive job loss is not a new phenomenon. Early 19th century textile artisans in the Luddite movement fought automation they felt threatened their jobs. Nevertheless, by the 20th century, employment-to-population ratios actually rose despite technological advances.1 In a stunning transformation, the share of the U.S. workforce engaged in agriculture declined from 41 percent to two percent between 1900 and 2000—but unemployment rates did not increase substantially.1 What happened?

A century ago, most Americans only had a middle-school education. As agricultural employment declined and workers needed new skills, the U.S. government implemented universal high school education—a global first. Similarly, while the share of Americans employed in factories declined, this loss was offset by the swelling service sector, among others. Though automation will inevitably change the landscape of employment, past technological transformations have proven the adaptability of the American workforce—especially when citizens have the opportunity to learn new skills.

Skills for a Brave New World

Although history has shown that automation is unlikely to cause long-term, elevated unemployment, some sectors and skills are more vulnerable to obsolescence than others. A McKinsey report predicts that automation will produce a skills shift, with more demand for technological, social, and emotional skills and less demand for physical and manual skills.2

Projections suggest that by 2030 the amount of time American workers spend using advanced technological skills will grow 50 percent. In particular, McKinsey projects the largest increase in demand will be for advanced IT and programming skills. Employers will target workers that possess basic digital skills plus the social, communication, and emotional skills that machines lack. On the other hand, machines will eliminate the human role in simple data-input tasks. As these skill-shifts occur, businesses will focus on retraining their workers. By using automation for repetitive manual work, organizations can free up their workforce for upskilling so they can learn more complex tasks.5

Job Loss or Job Growth?

While estimates show that half of all paid activities could be automated, under five percent of jobs could be replaced entirely by machines.3 In reality, automation is more likely to transform jobs than eliminate them, with the potential to impact roughly 60 percent of jobs heavily. Significant declines are projected for customer interaction, predictable physical work, and office support roles; and these job losses are likely to be offset by job creation in positions that provide overall higher incomes and consumption. McKinsey anticipates that the impact of rising incomes will create a demand for consumer goods that will create 250 million jobs and that increased spending on health and education will produce over 50 million more.3

Further, the need to develop new technologies, especially in IT, could add up to 50 million jobs worldwide. The sectors that will experience the most growth as a result of automation will be healthcare, professional careers like scientists, analysts, and engineers, IT professionals and technology specialists, executives and managers, educators, creatives, builders, and unpredictable manual labor jobs that cannot be done by machines.

Career Prospects in an Automated Economy

Looking at the success of America’s agricultural industrialization suggests that the key to preparing for a changing workforce is education, but that doesn’t mean everyone needs an advanced degree. Studies show that some middle-skill jobs will face elimination, but others are only growing, especially those that require a mix of knowledge in science, reasoning, and mathematics. Examples include medical occupations like nurse technician, phlebotomist, and radiologic technician, as well as skilled trades such as electrician, automotive technician, and builder. The increasing prevalence of cobotics—robots that complement human workers—demonstrates that these technologies may change the nature of jobs, but not to the detriment of workers.1

In many cases, technological advances are allowing middle-skill workers to take over more duties, as is the case for nurse practitioners who are now able to diagnose and prescribe. Economists predict that these new middle-skill jobs will expand despite, or even because of, automation.2 Though technology continues to advance, the combination of reasoning, communication skills, and broad knowledge required by these occupations will ensure their security. Along with these middle-skill jobs, non-predictable manual labor and educated professional positions will also stay in high demand.

Obstacles and Opportunities: Looking Forward

It’s inescapable: the march of technological progress will change the workforce. Certain professions—like predictable manual labor and rote data-entry occupations—will face elimination. However, history shows us that automation will not just replace existing jobs, it will create new opportunities. For those examining career prospects, developing communication, social, and emotional skills alongside technical knowledge will ensure ample employment options. As machines take over repetitive, specific tasks, industries are searching for employees with a broader knowledge set and soft skills that automation can’t replicate. With more workers widening their skillsets, the goal is that machines won’t replace workers but enable them to do more of what makes us human.

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