Sound the alarm! Robots are gunning for our jobs!
A study by Ball State University estimates that 5 million U.S. factory jobs have been lost to automation since 2000. A new McKinsey report warns that machines and AI could destroy another 73 million U.S. jobs by 2030, displacing up to 800 million workers worldwide.
Can employees do anything to halt this relentless rise of the machines and save their careers?
Apocalypse now – or not?
Before answering that question, let's look at two important points.
First, apocalyptic prophecies about massive job losses must be tempered with the likelihood that new technologies will also create many new jobs.
Second, AI and smart machines will affect some industries and occupations more than others.
For example, a study by Oxford University found that the jobs of telemarketer, insurance underwriter, data entry clerk and tax preparer have a 99 percent chance of being automated in the future. By contrast, the odds that occupational therapists, mental health social workers and emergency management directors will be replaced by robots is estimated to be a fraction of 1 percent.
Common denominator of "safe" occupations
Job insecurity has been with us for decades – long before AI and the internet of things. Cradle-to-grave job security died with disco.
Throughout history, the people who successfully adapt to changing economic realities are those willing to grow their knowledge and skills. To thrive in tomorrow's economy, the most valuable knowledge you can acquire is the skill of critical thinking.
Critical thinking skills are a common denominator of the occupations considered to be safe. The jobs least likely to be automated in the near future tend to require more critical thinking.
By critical thinking, I mean the ability to objectively analyze information to reach logical conclusions. A good critical thinker knows how to evaluate facts (data, research findings and observable evidence) and determine which information is useful for making a decision or solving a problem.
As an employer, critical thinking is the No. 1 skill I want in a job candidate. I need employees who can evaluate problems and develop solutions quickly, without constant supervision and direction. Such an employee is much more valuable to my company than someone who can’t operate independently, someone who (like a machine) relies on established rules and processes.
Can critical thinking skills be developed?
Yes. And if you want to grow your career, I suggest you do so immediately. A good place to start would be a college class, online course or video lecture series in logic.
You should also focus on four other skills, all related to critical thinking:
This requires many of the same tools used in critical thinking, but it's more narrowly focused on analyzing a problem, generating a solution, and then implementing and assessing the solution. For example, a customer service rep who is given the wrong address for a customer engages in problem-solving by entering the customer's name into a search engine to find the correct address. A non-problem-solver would simply report the problem to a supervisor.
Although automation and AI will increase efficiency and productivity, these tools cannot manage themselves. We need people to do this, especially when customers are involved. This requires that you know how to properly interact with people in ways that generate trust, cooperation and satisfactory outcomes. If you can't communicate with other team members and customers to develop solutions to complex problems, you are nothing but a liability to your employer. Organizations need employees who can collaborate, lead teams and deliver the right messages to customers. This isn't something that AI can do – not yet.
3. Emotional intelligence (EQ)
Many people entering the workforce, and even some veteran employees, do a poor job of managing their emotions. They aren't self-aware and have few or no self-management skills. Obviously, if you ca'’t manage your own emotions, you won't be able to read other people's feelings and know how to productively interact with them. In a customer interaction, a lack of EQ can be catastrophic. If customer service reps and salespeople can't detect and defuse emotions such as anger, frustration and skepticism, they could lose a sale or an existing client.
If you can find innovative ways to improve processes and service levels, you'll provide more value to your employer, and you'll get noticed. Management is always seeking new ideas and solutions. If you can spot trends and patterns where nobody else can, and add value via creative solutions, you'll carve out more career opportunities than your peers.
I could name another 15 or 20 skills that would help you thrive in tomorrow's economy, but the five I've listed are key. Critical thinking, problem-solving, communication, EQ and creativity will set you apart from your colleagues – and from every robot that's been invented.