The Future of Work - A Call to Action

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Jim Champy

The question of what work and jobs will look like in the future is very much in the public discourse. It’s surprising, given the unemployment rate in the US has fallen to 4.1%. But big change is ahead.

Some jobs are already disappearing. And new jobs are being created in the virtual (see gaming and bitcoin) and digital (see fincom) worlds.

I was amused by the older job classifications the Bureau of Labor Statistics follows: locomotive firers (I think those are people who feed coal to engines), expected to be down by 79% in the next ten years; parking enforcement workers, down by 35%; watch repairers, down by 29%; computer operators and telephone operators, both down by 23%. I expect technology will fully eliminate these jobs even more quickly.

What’s Driving the Change

Some jobs are “disappearing” because the work is going elsewhere, not just because labor costs are lower. Today, jobs move to where skills and advanced manufacturing capabilities are available. Apple isn’t making cell phones in Shenzhen, China, because Tim Cook likes the food. China has the talent, technology, and manufacturing facilities that enable Apple to compete.

Some jobs are changing or completely disappearing because the work has become automated or digitized. Artificial Intelligence (AI) will drive that even further.

And some jobs are changing because technology has enabled work processes to change. The work of healthcare clinicians has been affected by the ubiquity of electronic healthcare records and soon healthcare informatics will dramatically change the practice of medicine.

Every Job Will Change

I’m not normally given to hyperbole, but I can safely predict that every job we know today will soon change or disappear. I’m not alone in this belief. A Mckinsey study predicts one third of current jobs will disappear by 2030.

Labor economists point out there will soon be no work for truck drivers. Autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence will see to that. Self-driving delivery vehicles are already in production.

This will be a painful transition. People will be displaced. Some will find jobs in the digital economy. Others will have difficulty finding work or adjusting to different work.

This is not the first time we have gone through such change. It happened when we transformed from an agricultural to an industrial economy. People moved from farms to cities, found new jobs. But what will people do now? Will there be enough new jobs? Will a coal miner be happy working in a call center?

What Problem Can We Solve Now

When I started to reengineer work processes in the 1990’s, I could already see, in the future, fewer people would be required to do the same work. I could also see those people had to be more skilled.

Today, much of the work I reengineered would be fully digitized, and with AI, may soon require no people. The problem I don’t know how to solve is what to do with all the people who will be displaced. Maybe the economy will grow to create dramatically more service jobs that do require people - but there are no guarantees. Maybe we will morph to a real “gig economy”, with many left to find their own work.

What we can do, however, is begin to prepare people for the new work.

Work of the Future Will Require More Problem Solving and People Skills

It may seem counterintuitive at a time when the predictions are that AI and Machine Learning will take over the world, but there is still work ahead for real people.

I have been watching the evolution of work for service people handling complex problems, ones that cannot be completely solved by current technology. Booking a complex trip is a good example.

There are several online sites that offer flights, cars, hotels, apartments, homes, and adventures, but no site puts them all together. You can be adventurous and try to put a complex trip together yourself or you can call travel company and engage a service person.

That service person typically has access to multiple systems and has to listen carefully to the traveler’s wishes to come up with an itinerary that works. The screens in front of the service person only do part of the work.

Technology is becoming better and better, but I see people at the end of that sophisticated technology having to increase their skills in dealing with people they engage. We know what it’s like when technology enabled services break down.

Work of the Future Will Require Technology Sensibilities

Every company I know is increasingly trying to become digital - unless they are Amazon or Airbnb that we're born that way. But most companies are struggling to get there.

There is a lot of skill required to take people intensive work processes and digitize them. Building an internet site to do e-commerce and linking the site to a sophisticated logistics infrastructure is not easy. To fully digitize a “legacy business” is a real challenge.

Many enterprises are just underpowered to move into the digital economy.

Work of the Future Will Require More Highly Skilled People

This final point should by now be obvious. The future of work is all about getting smarter, for machines and people. But who’s going to take on the job of education and training?

That’s where preparation for the future of work begins. When the US loses jobs to the Chinese, it’s because we are falling behind in skills and technology. Is it the individual, government, educational institutions, or companies that must take on the challenge?

Everyone is Accountable

My answer is that all must engage in the process of getting smarter.

With the advent of online learning, students and workers can now drive the process of education. There is no excuse for not being ready to engage in the new work.

The government at all levels needs to set policies and provide funding to educate students and workers who can compete on the world stage. Otherwise, work will just go to other countries that build capabilities.

Educational institutions have to ask hard questions about the value of their education. Some colleges refuse to ask that question, claiming they are not “trade schools”. It’s not about becoming a “trade school”. It’s about being useful and helping to solve real problems.

And companies need to step up and continuously develop workers. Learning in the digital economy can never stop.

And 20 Years From Now

We are in a transitional period right now, where getting smarter will enable people to hold a job, But in the future, processes and technology will be designed to best engage the intelligence of people. And that will create great jobs - hopefully enough of them.