The Daleks are coming and many high skill jobs are not safe

Every time I shop at my local
Woolworths, I join the self-service checkout queue to pay for my shopping.

 

I don’t need or want any social
interaction (‘How’s your day?’) when I shop. I am happy to scan and pack
my own shopping.

 

When I do this, I am indirectly
undermining a cashier’s job at Woolworths. A self-service machine can work for
hours (days?) without a break and doesn’t require sick leave, annual or
overtime. One staff member supervises five self-serve machines at my Woolies.

 

Self-serve options in major stores
are a relatively new addition to the artificial intelligence that underpins the
reduced requirement for human beings to facilitate work tasks.

 

Amazon has a business model built
upon among other things, artificial intelligence (people who purchased X
also purchased……
). I’ve been a very satisfied Amazon customer for about
seven years and I’ve never had an interaction with a single person at Amazon.

 

As a species, we almost immediately
take our ‘new reality’ for granted as we rapidly move away from interacting
with our fellow humans. How many times have you physically visited a bank in
the past five years? Do you frequently marvel at the ease of paying bills and
transacting online compared to the way our parents paid bills and undertook
their banking? I doubt it. It’s completely normal now.

 

My local DVD store shut down the week
before Netflix announced they were
going to be open for business in Australia in March next year

 

In about two years time the
experience of interacting with another human to rent a movie, a TV series or a
documentary will be a quaint memory for ninety per cent of Australians.

 

All of the experiences above will be common to almost
every person reading this blog, yet I’m sure the
reaction to the headline
commonly seen last week Up to
500,000 jobs threatened by rise of robots, artificial intelligence: report  was, for the same readers, one of faint alarm.

 

The report referenced by this (and
other similar) headline(s) was the release of the inaugural Australian Industry Report 2014
published by the Department of Industry, Office of the Chief Economist (the
role is currently held by Mark Cully). The report looks at a range of economic
forces that will drive the need for structural changes in various aspects of
the Australian economy over the medium term.

 

As the AFR reported:

 

‘… the report finds that
occupations most at risk of computerisation are those that involve routine
tasks, such as bank tellers, clerks, bookkeepers and even highly qualified
roles such as pharmacists – 78.6 per cent of whom have at least a bachelor’s
degree.

 

“A tertiary education,
therefore, does not guarantee a safeguard against automation,” Mr Cully
said in the report.

 

A widely-quoted Oxford Martin
School study published last year estimated that about 47 per cent of all US
jobs are
at
risk of computerisation
, many of them in sectors needing high-level skills, wages and
education.

 

By contrast, Mr Cully said some
of the safest jobs were those that did not require advanced education –
including truck drivers, electricians and waiters.

 

Asked what jobs young
Australians should train for, Mr Cully said it was more important to get good
schooling – whether through an apprenticeship or university – than target any
particular sector
 . “We don’t
know what the future holds,”  he said in an interview on Tuesday. (my
bold)

 

Mr Cully is absolutely right, in my
opinion. The market for jobs is changing so rapidly that the importance of a
very sound foundation education is very important. As the report articulates,
the current high salaries for various jobs are not any guarantee that these
jobs won’t be computerised out of existence. In fact, high salaries create a
greater incentive to find a computerised solution that is cheaper, faster and
more reliable. As an example, driverless trucks have
recently been introduced into West Australian mines to replace expensive
employees.

 

I would also add something else, not
remarked upon my Mr Cully (or if he did say anything of this nature, it wasn’t
reported), and that’s the importance of making a habit of life-long learning,
especially outside any traditional place of formal learning.

 

The importance of self-directed
and/or self-initiated learning via reading, coaching, mentoring, short courses
etc has never been more important.

 

The core competency of the future
(you could argue that future is already here) is the ability to learn, and
unlearn just as quickly.

3 Comments

  1. Ian Hamilton on 18/12/2014 at 5:36 am

    Great stuff Ross, continually learning (and continually wanting to learn) should be near the top of every ones to do list and near the top of the competency list for everyone looking to recruit a senior person

  2. Bill Ellerton on 19/12/2014 at 4:42 am

    Very interesting article.
    The reality is that ever since the first human being picked up a tool – perhaps a rock to break open a nut – we have been trying to put ourselves out of work. It's a long time since we used rocks to break open nuts, or used spinning wheels to make threads that could be manually knitted into garments. The industrial revolution, primarily driven out of Britain, Germany and some other European countries changed the nature of work forever. Millions of people were thrown out of work and into poverty. The skills of many hundreds of thousands of skilled artisans were no longer needed. Yet few would argue today that we should go back to making bricks by hand, making glass bottles by blowing each one individually or manually spinning yarn to make our clothes. The change that was driven out of the industrial powerhouses of Europe changed the way we humans live our lives for the better in so many ways.
    The reality is that the world is about to enter a very exciting period. A period of change that will be as big as the industrial revolution. We can't stop that change, we will not be able to hold back that change no matter how much some of the Luddites might want to. As with all change there will be winners and losses in the short term, though the whole of humanity will benefit in the long term. The real challenge is to figure out how not to end up being a short term looser.
    Having grown up in the industrial north of England I have some sympathy for the Luddites in terms understanding their motivations, but burning down cotton mills was never going to be a successful strategy. The industrial revolution also resulted in the establishment of the trade union movement, who often rather than trying to bring a halt to the industrial revolution worked to improve the conditions of those poor souls who were forced to work in horrendous conditions for next to nothing. One has to wonder what social change, what new types of organisations and social structures will evolve, what safety nets we will be able to put up, to protect the losers and have nots as we move into this next exciting revolution.

  3. Daniel Mundy on 15/03/2017 at 9:34 am

    Growth mindset and lifelong learning with the motivation to shift and pivot before you have too. Take the choice rather than be backed into a corner

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