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Is Your Job Doomed by Technology?

Here's how a panel of experts just answered that question

At the Milken Institute Global Conference I’m attending in Los Angeles this week, brilliant minds are debating some of the most important topics affecting society, from prospects for global markets to “the promise of the cancer moonshot.” One I went to yesterday was a doozy: “Jobs and Technology: Is Any Job Truly Safe?”

“Is any job safe? The answer is no,” moderator and self-employed journalist Dennis Kneale said opening the session, after noting he lost his Fox Business Network job two years ago. “I found the media had almost no jobs and no growth. What happened to me is coming to you guys next and every sector everywhere maybe. It’s something we’re all going to deal with.”

But when the panelists were asked whether any job was truly safe, they said… That’s not the right question. The real question, according to the panelists, is: How will you and your field adapt to technology?

How Jobs Have Changed and Will Change

Wendy MacLennan, 54, knows that first hand, as a fantastic story about her by Sue Shellenbarger in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal (“An Engineer Returns to Work After Years at Home With the Children”) explained.

Less than 5 percent of occupations can be fully automated, but 45 percent of activities can be adapted by technologies.

— Michael Chui, McKinsey Global Institute

MacLennan had been a car designer at GM and Ford before taking 24 years off to raise her four children and teach at a home-schooling co-op. She was rehired at Ford in 2014 as a systems engineer and project manager designing hybrid vehicles. Because technology had changed so much, the new job, she told the Journal, “was way harder than I thought.” She described it as “like being dropped off in a land where you don’t speak the language.”

Goodbye overhead projectors, MacLennan found; hello virtual-meeting software. And the paper drawings she used to do had been replaced by computer-assisted design software. But MacLennan didn’t give up and neither did Ford, which gave her hours of online training and courses. Recently, the Journal said, MacLennan was named Employee of the Month in her 600-person department.

That story had a happy ending. But will yours? And what about other American workers?

Three of the panelists were hopeful, though hardly giddy — Alan Krueger, a Princeton economics professor and former chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors; Michael Chui, a partner at McKinsey Global Institute; and Kate Mitchell, co-founder and partner of the Scale Venture Partners venture capital firm.

One — Martin Ford, an entrepreneur and author of Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future — was more downbeat, though not fatalistic.

Pessimistic About Jobs, But Not Society

Ford, described by Kneale as “the most pessimistic on the panel,” said: “I am pessimistic specifically about the future of jobs over the long run, but not over the future of society or the economy.” Ford added: “A huge number of jobs, especially routine, predictable ones across the board in industries and occupations and skill levels will be susceptible to automation. Machines are encroaching on the fundamental capability that sets humans apart.”

Mitchell, a fan of the growing “gig economy,” disagreed. “I don’t think we’re doomed. Is any existing job truly safe? We all need to be concerned,” she said.

But, Mitchell added, “the National Association of Manufacturers says there are 600,000 jobs going wanting due to a lack of people who can handle the skills of those manufacturing jobs.” In other words: yes, there will be dislocations, but there’ll also be opportunities.

Technology Will Increase, Not Eliminate, Jobs

And, she said emphatically: “Is the goal of technology to eliminate jobs? Absolutely not. What technology can do is increase jobs.”

However, she added, workers need to tech up. “Eight of 10 jobs today require digital literacy,” said Mitchell. “Computer science and data analytics have replaced English as the language people need to know around the world.”

Chui said McKinsey looked at more than 900 occupations and determined that “less than 5 percent of occupations can be fully automated, but 45 percent of activities can be adapted by technologies.”

Krueger conceded that “the nature of work is changing dramatically.” What technology has done, he said, “is, along with globalization, diminish demand for workers with a low level of skills.” But, he noted, “throughout history we have always feared that technology will replace jobs.”

The Jobs We Don’t Know About Yet

Then he presented a stunning, encouraging statistic: “I did a project looking at job growth from the mid 1960s to 2005 and found that the vast majority of job growth came from jobs that hadn’t been invented yet in 1965.” With a nod to The Graduate, Krueger said, “plastics” jobs grew below average. Job growth, he concluded, “is very difficult to predict.”

Mitchell underscored Krueger’s point about hot jobs being “new” types of jobs by noting that computer scientist is now the most popular job in Colorado, Utah, Virginia and Washington.

Krueger also noted that the Uberization of the economy has invented and ballooned the number of contractor jobs — what he calls “alternative work” — that didn’t exist a few years ago. Citing his research that appeared in The Wall Street Journal in March, since 2005, the number of workers in “alternative arrangements” has risen to nearly 16 percent of the workforce, up from 10 percent a decade ago. “All of the net job growth form 2005 to 2015 is accounted for by growth in alternative work,” he said.

Indeed, the number of UberX drivers — they’re the ones who drive their own, standard cars — has doubled every six months for the last four years, Krueger noted.

But, Ford responded, independent contractor work is not “reliable income”and doesn’t provide fringe benefits in many cases. “Technology enables all this freelance work and the gig economy. It may be just the fist step heading to full automation,” he said. ”Uber is investing very heavily in building self-driving cars.”

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