In my previous blog “The Talent Problem - Part I”, we discussed the high skilled worker shortage, especially in STEM field. We also reviewed issues about why so many millennials are over-qualified for their jobs from a degree standpoint. Part II will review the talent surplus issues related to mid-skilled workers and low-skilled workers. Their challenges are also caused by advancement of technology but with a very different outcome.
AI, Robots, and Job Loss
There is no doubt that no one would ever carry the car phone anymore, but it was the hottest gadget back in ‘80s. Looking at our smartphones today, it is easy to see why people chose to leave those technologies behind. The same type of history will repeat for AI (artificial intelligence), robots, and other automation in business, manufacturing, and transportation.
There are more examples in history; one of the famous stories is of the Luddites. The Smithsonian has a good article about them that you can read here. Another modern example is the agricultural workforce. More than 50% of the US workforce was in agriculture back in 1850, but there was only 1.5% in 2012 according the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The primary driver of these changes was the creation of machinery; that is no different than what the robots will do for our future.
In my view, there is no point to discussing whether AI or robots will kill jobs. Jobs will be eliminated. It’s no different than why we don’t have people to light streetlamps anymore. My preferred discussion is what are the new jobs that will be created with these technologies.
Skill Needs Shift
Consider this: the first telegraph line was laid by Morse in 1844, followed by Bell’s wired telephone demonstration in 1876. More than a century and half later, we have communities after communities with fiber optics for internet. The demand for data has increased at an unbelievable rate. All these technologies use wires but each in a very different way. It is easy to see that wire installation jobs didn’t get eliminated, but those jobs exist in very different forms with different sets of skill requirements.
The AI and robot wave will be no different. In my own career 20+ years ago, we usually had one machinist per machine and an inspector walking around checking parts. Now, it is easy to find in many modern machining shops that you have one machinist control 4 to 5 automatic machining centers. They are also responsible for ensuring the parts are made correctly by those machines. The math is easy, the one machinist can do the same amount of work previously done by 5 people plus 1 shared resource. Job loss? Yes. But there is no good machinist who wants to go back to “the good old days” if you ask.
According a study done by Korn Ferry (The Future of Work), by 2030, we will face a high skilled worker (those requiring a four-year degree or higher) deficit of more than 6.6M jobs. Another equally alarming statistic in the same study is that we will have 8.2M surplus for both mid-level skilled workers and low level skilled workers. Those 16+M potential workers will need to upskill themselves or settle for even lower skilled jobs.
Let's do something about it
Looking around, you are likely to find many mid-level skilled workers that are smart enough to get a four-year degree, or to be trained and certified as high skilled workers. We as a society need to push hard to seek the root cause about why they settle for being a mid-skilled worker. These 8.2M workers are a wonderful solution to overcome the high skilled worker shortage.
Today’s educational institutions still focus on degreed educations. I wish both government and educational institutions would shift more resources into upskilling workers. More than 60% of US population is between 18 and 65. There is a good chance they will face the skill shift within 20 or 30 years of their careers, such that re-training would be required. It is very different for people who are 40 or older today. There is no evidence to show that we are prepared to provide upskill training to address these needs.
It is critical for us to remind our legislature to address this issue and shifting how resources are allocated. It is also important for businesses to participate and clarify the demand to drive the educational institutions to produce workers that meet the needs of the future. I am sure there is more we can do in addition to my suggestions, and I would love to hear your comments.