When it comes to the future of work, the focus is no longer on humans, but rather nonhumans: automatic machinery, robots and artificial intelligence. Proponents argue these technologies can transform the world of industry, allowing companies to reduce inefficiencies and maximize their profits. But this reality has also come with its share of consequences, as automation has completely shifted the way other sectors, key to filling the workforce, must approach their business models.
Higher education institutions, for example, recognize that many of the jobs they once trained graduates to fill in the past are now easily, more cheaply filled through automation, or even just gone completely. And, even industries one wouldn’t expect to become human-less have already started to integrate artificial intelligence into basic functions.
Cynthia Estlund in a law research journal writes the majority of industries are already becoming automated. She cites McKinsey Global Institute researchers who claim “73 percent of the time for which humans are now paid in that sector is spent in activities that could be automated with existing technology.” And expanded out on a national scale, they find that “46 percent of all of the time for which people are now paid in the U.S. economy is spent in activities that could be automated based on currently available technology.”
As the business of higher education institutions is to prepare students to enter the world of work, the fact that many jobs are being entirely replaced by machines is rightly throwing leaders for a loop. But the rise in automation doesn't necessarily mean that postsecondary institutions are losing their value; rather, it means that colleges and universities are going to have to shift their focus.
Start focusing in on the humanities — developing soft skills needed for 'jobs of the future'
Almost counter-intuitively, the rise in automation means that colleges must focus in on the transferable humanities skills more so than just standard technical training. Of course, having the ability work through problems with machines means that those entering the workforce must have that technical expertise, but just having a computer science background, for instance, is no longer enough.
This would entail policymakers working with higher education institutions to start defining what types of skills are going to be needed for an increasingly mechanized world of work, as well as start collecting data on the jobs that are newly opening, but going unfilled. The Atlantic showcases Henry Ford College, for example, because it teaches students how to “learn to learn” — where they engage in a number of troubleshoot exercises with different machines, because “as more jobs become automated, companies are looking for employees who can essentially manage the machines doing the work.”
As the article points out, what’s required in graduates is no longer the ability to just place something on the conveyer belt, but to figure out why the conveyer belt might have stopped and work with a team of people to figure out a solution.
An additional fear with automation is that humans will become incapable of performing high-level tasks on their own — as the workforce becomes entrenched with machines, there’s the risk that people will not be able to maintain their base skillsets. Many complain that they are unable to figure out directions with intuition or street smarts, because GPS applications are so easy to use and make it so that humans never actually have to know directions.
As this reality expands out to other forms of work, it’s critical that institutions of knowledge step in and instill these basic senses in their students. Having the street smarts to explore a city may actually be the type of skill that helps a graduate student stand out within a pool of potential laborers that have not had those experiences.
Creating the post-automation workforce means targeting the pipeline
Preparing workers for the future and ensuring that not all jobs are simply replaced by robots requires policymakers, industry and education stakeholders to collaborate in defining how post-secondary education and even K-12 education can better prepare students for jobs that don’t yet exist.
Filling gaps in the workforce — or better yet, being the institution that can provide those graduates for jobs that don't exist yet — requires a collective look into the education to career pipeline, where lower socioeconomic classes and ethnic, language minorities get at least a fighting chance to make it into higher education institutions and receive the types of skills that are necessary. And those institutions that do focus in on making the pathway easier for diverse students will see how it pays off as the pool of potential enrollees continues to become more nontraditional.
This is especially critical because it's not that automation is producing too many jobs, but that it may end up producing too few. Estlund explains that automation may generate “huge productivity gains and [destroy] many decent mid-level jobs,” which will lead to a “growing economic chasm between those who produce or own the new technology, or whose high-end skills are complimented by that technology, and the masses who are stuck competing, and driving down wages, for the jobs that remain.”
In other words, since individuals who are primarily taking on jobs that don’t require high-end skills are already competing for lower wages than others, the further diminished value in these fields may only exacerbate inequity, effectively destroying the socioeconomic ladder of opportunity the nation is built on.
The root of this issue actually goes beyond the rise in automation, and regards more closely the inequity in education — how can we train our students to fill in a dwindling job pool, when so many of them cannot go to the institutions necessary to give them those skills? As a primary plan of action, higher education leaders can work with policymakers to focus in on making the pipeline more equitable, before so many jobs get replaced that it’s too late to start closing those socioeconomic gaps.
As companies like Google and Microsoft continue to expand their technological abilities and look toward higher education for recruitment of specialized workers, the institutions that will really stand out as automation takes over are the ones that are able to produce a diverse pool of workers with the hard and soft skills necessary to take on jobs that have yet to be imagined.