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The Growing Dangers of Technological Unemployment and the Re-Skilling of America

by | Jul 6, 2014 | Business Trends

Thomas Frey Futurist Speaker the growing dangers-of technological unemployment and the re skilling of america

In March, when Facebook announced the $2 billion acquisition of Oculus Rift, they not only put a giant stamp of approval on the technology, but they also triggered an instant demand for virtual reality designers, developers, and engineers.

Virtual reality professionals were nowhere to be found on the list of hot skills needed for 2014, but they certainly will be for 2015.

The same was true when Google and Facebook both announced the acquisition of solar powered drone companies Titan and Ascenta respectively. Suddenly we began seeing a dramatic uptick in the need for solar-drone engineers, drone-pilots, air rights lobbyists, global network planners, analysts, engineers, and logisticians.

Bold companies making moves like this are instantly triggering the need for talented people with skills aligned to grow with these cutting edge industries.

Whether its Tesla Motors announcing the creation of a fully automated battery factory; Intel buying the wearable tech company Basic Science; Apple buying Dr. Dre’s Beats Electronics; or Google’s purchase of Dropcam, Nest, and Skybox, the business world is forecasting the need for radically different skills than colleges and universities are preparing students for.

In these types of industries, it’s no longer possible to project the talent needs of business and industry 5-6 years in advance, the time it takes most universities to develop a new degree program and graduate their first class. Instead, these new skill-shifts come wrapped in a very short lead-time, often as little as 3-4 months.

Last month, Udacity’s founder, Sebastian Thrun, announced his solution, the NanoDegree, where short-course training is carefully aligned with hiring companies, and virtually everyone graduating within the initial demand period is guaranteed a job.

Udacity’s NanoDegrees are very similar to the Micro College programs being developed by the DaVinci Institute that can rapidly respond to swings in the corporate training marketplace. More about DaVinci’s Micro College plans in the coming weeks.

Here’s why NanoDegrees and Micro Colleges are about to become the hottest of all the hot topics for career-shifting people everywhere.


At the Future Job Summit hosted by Peter Diamandis

The Growing Dangers of Technological Unemployment

Last weekend, Peter Diamandis, founder of Singularity University and the X-Prize Foundation, invited me to a 2-day summit along with some of Silicone Valley’s best thinkers to discuss future jobs and the growing dangers of technological unemployment.

In Peter’s way of thinking, even though we are headed toward a world of abundance, having a significant loss of jobs due to robots and automation has the potential of causing a near term backlash.

Every time 10,000 people are laid off their jobs, it creates a glass-half-full-half-empty kind of dilemma.

The layoffs increase our pool of available human capital, but we are left with the question of who, what, when, where, and how to apply this available manpower. Our challenge, designing a social system for reintegrating these “dangling particles of talent,” will be to match personal interests, aptitude, and training to the mix in a way that efficiently leverages and empowers people.

During this transition period, a very real danger exists in the form of protests and repercussion from displaced workers. Those who blame their deteriorating job prospects and overall loss of opportunity on automation, could indeed wage some form of war against technology.

Taxi drivers, truck drivers, bus drivers, and even airline pilots will eventually be supplanted by driverless forms of transportation. Construction workers, craftsmen, janitors, accountants, bankers, and retailers all run a very real risk of having their positions automated out of existence.

Recent protests and skirmishes involving Google’s employee buses could easily escalate into something worse and form the basis of a new-age Luddite rallying cry to slow down, even undermine, our future. With a combination of techno-sabotaging confrontations and pushing all the right labor-agenda political buttons, the fear of an unknown robot-infested future could take center stage as a rallying cry for top-of-the-mind policy-setting criteria, hampering, possibly even reversing, many of the recent advances we’ve made.

Even darker scenarios could play out as modern-day digital uprisings spread like wildfires turning the speed and capabilities of tech against itself. The damage caused by a single individual could be tantamount to an anti-tech ice age spreading its influence throughout the entire world.

The same Internet that delivers our news and heightens out awareness of the world around us can also be used to poison people’s thinking creating an anti-technology agenda that frames the conversation for the rest of the world.

Framing the Conversation First

No it’s not possible for the human race to actually “run out of work.” But the kind of skills needed to perform the “new work” will indeed change and without some form of retraining intervention, the techno-illiterates run a real danger of having their prospects permanently compromised.

The re-skilling process is only as bright as the glimmers of hope and well-illuminated career path at the end of each participant’s transitionary tunnel.

The assumption that low-skilled janitors, drivers, and dockworkers cannot be retrained for more technical work is not only false, but the first of many social objections that will need to be overcome.

Rapid re-skilling programs designed to build individual competencies, one micro-capability at a time, coupled with hands-on apprenticeships and on-demand tutorial support, are all pieces of the learning environments that will be needed to elevate the caliber of workers to meet the vital workforce needs of tomorrow.

Ironically, the STEM talents that have prevented most of these workers from landing today’s better paying jobs will be automated into the AI, artificial intelligence, operating systems of tomorrow’s most ubiquitous equipment and therefore play a less significant role.

Placing Humans First

Our economy is based on people. Humans are the buying entities, the connectors, the decision-makers, and the trade partners that make our economy work.

Without humans there can be no economy. So when it comes to automation:

  • A person with a toolbox is more valuable than a person without one.
  • A person with a computer is more valuable than a person without one.
  • A person with a robot or a machine is more valuable than a person without one.

Automation does not happen simply for the sake of automation. It’s intended to benefit people.

If we only look at what automation will eliminate, we’ll be viewing the world through a glass-half-empty lens.

Though we have a hard time understanding the exact role of tomorrow’s worker bees, even our most sophisticated machines in the future will require human owners, human controllers, human customers, and human oversight when things go wrong.

Disruptive vs. Constructive Technologies

In the 1700s, nearly 97% of employment in the U.S. was related to agriculture. Today, that number hovers around 2%.

This means that over the past two centuries, over 95% of all ag workers were displaced by technology.

Any industry today that is being forced to do more with less is working through a similar process of having their workers automated out of existence.

Thomas Frey Futurist Speaker all industries form a bell curve

All industries form a bell curve

As with everything in life, all industry lifecycles form a bell curve with a beginning, middle, and end. It’s important to understand that all industries will eventually end and get replaced by something else.

Usually the starting point can be traced to an invention or discovery such as Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone or Henry Bessemer’s process for making cheap steel in large volumes. The end comes when a new industry replaces the old, like calculators replacing the slide rule.

At some point along the way, every industry will experience a period of peak demand for their goods or service.

Thomas Frey Futurist Speaker Many industries are entering the downside of the curve
Many industry are entering the downside of the curve

Many of our largest industries today are entering the second half of the bell curve.

Leading indicators that industries are entering their top-of-the-curve midlife crisis are when the disruptors, a growing cadre of startups and their process-altering technologies begin attacking key profit centers.

Prior to reaching peak demand for these goods or service, often several decades earlier, industries will experience a period of peak employment.

Thomas Frey Futurist Speaker peak steel
Peak Steel

Using “Peak Steel” as an example, the peak demand for steel is projected to occur sometime around 2024. This is when composite materials will gain enough of a foothold and the overall demand for steal will begin to decline.

Yet, peak employment for the steel industry happened in the 1970s. The 521,000 employed in 1974 was automated down to a mere 151,000 by 2000 even though the amount of steel produced is now more than triple that of the 1970s.

In this context, any reduction in employment is a lead indicator of an industry cresting the bell curve, foretelling a downturn in the overall demand for goods or services, as the industry enters its waning years.

Finding the Seeds of Opportunity in Automation

According to a May 2011 study by the McKinsey Global Institute titled “Internet matters: The Net’s sweeping impact on growth, jobs, and prosperity,” the Internet has accounted for 21% of GDP growth over the previous five years.

They also concluded the Internet is a key catalyst for job creation. Among 4,800 small and medium-size enterprises surveyed, the Internet created 2.6 jobs for each one lost to technology-related efficiencies.

We are now transitioning from room-size automation that only large companies could afford, to desktop automation that allows small and even one-person businesses to be part of.

In much the same way that the 1985 Apple LaserWriter gave birth to desktop publishing, the 2010 MakerBot’s Thing-O-Matic 3D printer gave birth to desktop manufacturing.

Thomas Frey Futurist Speaker re-skilling of America

Final Thoughts

As with every 12-step program, everything begins with acknowledging we have a problem. But the problem today is miniscule in comparison to the problems that lay ahead.

Matching displaced worker’s interests with the right opportunities for retraining, apprenticeships, and jobs will be a delicate balancing act at best.

The dangers of lapsing into low-challenge solutions that undercut a person’s drive and ambition can also be problematic, setting the stage for even longer-term problems.

Asking the Trekkiest question of all – “What is humanity’s Prime Directive?” – should we be focused on more grandiose goals like traveling at the speed of light, colonizing other planets, controlling gravity, or mitigating the impact of earthquakes and hurricanes?

With automation and AI, we will experience exponential growth in human capabilities. But without a big picture perspective and overarching goals, the path of individual opportunity runs the risk of being hijacked by other interests – political interests, corporate interests, religious interests, and national interests.

We still lack imagination for what future generations will need. To get to this point, a mountain of work still remains.

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The Growing Dangers of Technological Unemployment and the Re-Skilling of America

by | Jul 6, 2014 | Business Trends

I was thoroughly intrigued when I found out the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado was offering a degree in asteroid mining.

Yes, the idea of extracting water, oxygen, minerals, and metals from an asteroid sounds like science fiction to most people, but it’s not that far away.  In fact, Colorado School of Mines’ newly launched “Space Resources” program will help people get in on the ground floor.

After thinking about the proactive nature of this approach, it became abundantly clear how backward thinking most colleges have become.

When colleges decide on a new degree program, they must first recruit instructors, create a new curriculum, and attract students. As a result, the talent churned out of these newly minted programs is the product of a 6-7 year pipeline.

For this reason, anticipatory-thinking institutions really need to be setting their sights on what business and industries will need 7-10 years from now.

The Risk-Averse Nature of Education

When Harvard professor Clayton M. Christensen released his best-selling book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, his core message that disruptive change is the path to success, was only partially embraced by higher education.

While many were experimenting with MOOCs and smart whiteboards, changes in the subject matter of their courses still evolved at the traditional pace of discovery.

This is not to say colleges are not innovative. Rather, the demands of today’s emerging tech environment are forcing business and industries to shift into an entirely new gear. And that most definitely includes our academic institutions.

From a management perspective, it’s far easier to oversee a contained system where all variables are constrained. But during times of change, we tend to give far more power to the “unleashers,” who are determined to test the status quo and release ideas and trial balloons to see what works.

For this reason, managers and creatives often find themselves on opposing sides, and the winners of these warring factions often determine what we as consumers see as the resulting ripples of change.

Offering Pilot Programs

When Facebook bought Oculus Rift in March 2014 for $2 billion, the job boards went crazy, as there was an instant uptick in the demand for VR designers, engineers, and experience creators. But no one was teaching VR, and certainly not the Oculus Rift version of it.

Colleges have a long history of being blindsided by new technologies:

  • When eBay launched, no one was teaching ecommerce strategies
  • When Myspace launched, no one was teaching social networking
  • When Google launched, no one was teaching online search engine strategies
  • When Uber launched, no one was teaching sharing economy business models
  • When Apple first opened their App Store, no one was teaching smart phone app design
  • When Amazon first allowed online storefronts, no one was teaching the Amazon business model
  • When YouTube first offered ways to monetize videos, no one was teaching it

Since most academic institutions are only willing to put their name on programs with long-term viability, the endorsement of half-baked agendas does not come easy. However, that is exactly what needs to be done.

Colleges can no longer afford to remain comfortably behind the curve.

52 Future College Degrees

As a way of priming your thinking on this matter, here are 52 future degrees that forward-thinking colleges could start offering today:

  1. Space Exploration – space tourism planning and management
  2. Space Exploration – planetary colony design and operation
  3.  Space Exploration – next generation space infrastructure
  4. Space Exploration – advanced cosmology and non-earth human habitats
  5. Bioengineering with CRISPR – policy and procedural strategies
  6. Bioengineering with CRISPR – advanced genetic engineering systems
  7. Bioengineering with CRISPR – operational implementations and system engineering
  8. Bioengineering with CRISPR – ethical regulation and oversight
  9. Smart City – autonomous traffic integration
  10. Smart City – mixed reality modeling
  11. Smart City – autonomous construction integration
  12. Smart City – next generation municipal planning and strategy
  13. Autonomous Agriculture – robotic systems
  14. Autonomous Agriculture – drone systems
  15. Autonomous Agriculture – supply chain management
  16. Autonomous Agriculture – systems theory and integration
  17. Swarmbot – design, theory, and management
  18. Swarmbot – system engineering and oversight
  19. Swarmbot – municipal system design
  20. Swarmbot – law enforcement and advanced criminology systems
  21. Cryptocurrency – digital coin economics
  22. Cryptocurrency – crypto-banking system design
  23. Cryptocurrency – regulatory systems and oversight
  24. Cryptocurrency – forensic accounting strategies
  25. Blockchain – design, systems, and applications
  26. Blockchain – blockchain for biological systems
  27. Blockchain – large-scale integration structures
  28. Blockchain – municipal system design strategies
  29. Global Systems – system planning, architecture, and design
  30. Global Systems – large-scale integration strategies
  31. Global Systems – operational systems checks and balance
  32. Global Systems – governmental systems in a borderless digital world
  33. Unmanned Aerial Vehicle - drone film making
  34. Unmanned Aerial Vehicle – command center operations
  35. Unmanned Aerial Vehicle – municipal modeling and planning systems
  36. Unmanned Aerial Vehicle – emergency response systems
  37. Mixed Reality - experiential retail
  38. Mixed Reality – three-dimensional storytelling
  39. Mixed Reality – game design
  40. Mixed Reality – therapeutic systems and design
  41. Advanced Reproductive Systems – designer baby strategies, planning, and ethics
  42. Advanced Reproductive Systems – surrogate parenting policy and approaches
  43. Advanced Reproductive Systems – organic nano structures
  44. Advanced Reproductive Systems – clone engineering and advanced processes
  45. Artificial Intelligence – data management in an AI environment
  46. Artificial Intelligence – advanced human-AI integration
  47. Artificial Intelligence – streaming AI data services
  48. Artificial Intelligence – advanced marketing with AI
  49. Quantum Computing – data strategies in a quantum-connected world
  50. Quantum Computing – quantum-level encryption and security
  51. Quantum Computing – quantum computing implementation strategies
  52. Quantum Computing – AI-quantum system integration

Final Thought

More so than any time in history, we have a clear view of next generation technologies. Naturally, we’re still a long way from 100% clarity, but for most of the technologies listed above, the shifting tectonic plates of change can be felt around the world.

Without taking decisive action, colleges run the risk of being circumvented by new types of training systems that can meet market demands in a fraction of the time it takes traditional academia to react.

The ideas I’ve listed are a tiny fraction of what’s possible when it comes to emerging tech degrees. Should colleges stick their neck out like Colorado School of Mines and offer degrees that may not be immediately useful? Adding to that question, how many college degrees are immediately useful today?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

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