Is your job safe from smart computers?

A study by Oxford University predicts that 47% of American jobs are at “high risk” of being taken over by robots in the next 20 years. And a recent report by the US Department of Labor says about 65% of the jobs people will be doing in 10 years’ time have not been thought of yet.

It is only natural that people feel threatened by machines, which could, and in some cases already are, performing jobs people make a living from now.

A recent report by PwC found 81% of CEOs say they are looking for a wider mix of skills than they have in the past. According to this report, businesses desperately need tech-savvy innovators and “hybrid” workers, who understand both their own sector and complex digital technology.

Gerald Seegers, head of human resources services for PwC Southern Africa, says: “The digital age has transformed the skills shortage from a nagging worry for CEOs into something more challenging.

Businesses are faced with a complex and shifting world where technology is driving huge changes. They desperately need people with strong technology skills who ?are adaptable and can work across different industries.” 

But, he says, these people are hard to find and can charge a premium for their skills.

Richard Cooper, an economist at Harvard University, studied the impact of technological advancements on employment. “The idea of technology destroying jobs has been going on for two centuries,” he told Bloomberg. “Certain jobs get destroyed, but other jobs get created.”

Tom Austin, a research fellow at Gartner and chairman of Smart Machines, says smart machines won’t simply eliminate certain jobs overnight. “Sometimes, machines can replace people − but that takes place over a long period of time. Sometimes, they can’t.

“Take autonomous and driverless vehicles. While autonomous features ?are appearing now, and driverless vehicles will become commonplace a bit after 2020, we don’t expect the job of a truck driver to disappear until the late 2040s or so.” 

Smart machines fall into the class called general purpose technology [GPT] that will dramatically alter how we work, play and live, says Austin. 

“It will change how business gets done and how governments are run. It will change the way we learn and what we earn.” But the change could take 75 years or even more, he says.

An academic paper from two Oxford University scholars, titled The future of employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation? examines the chances that a computer or robot will take over a job function. 

Their findings suggest that “as technology races ahead, low-skill workers will reallocate to tasks that are not susceptible to computerisation – tasks requiring creative and social intelligence”. 
To win the race, workers will have to acquire such creative and social skills, the paper says.

Instead of asking which jobs could be replaced, we should ask what the world needs more of, Austin says. 

This is an excerpt from an article that originally appeared in the 30 July 2015 edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here

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