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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