Principal Consultant, Career OverDrive!
On the whole it has enormously contributed to our rising wages, our collective rising standard of living and the creation of more and more professional jobs which in turn have required higher and higher skills sets which in turn also have often provided enormous psychic pleasure for the workers through the intellectual stimulation provided by such work (it's probably also fair to say that such required rising skill sets and often consequential stress have also lead to insomnia, ulcers, GERD and so forth if we are willing to honestly consider the downside of this).
However, over the last two decades all of these separate trend lines (digitization, automation, mechanization and roboticization) have been converging and soon they will completely converge as they hit an aggregate inflection point which will first consume and then destroy far, far more jobs than will be created going forward. Simultaneously this will set a new, extremely high bar for those that seek any employment, thus, breaking the old knowledge-employment paradigm we've experienced and, for the most part, enjoyed to our benefit in the past.
This means that going forward, even more so than now, there will be huge differences in the skill sets required between those who are deemed employable-desirable, those deemed employable if one hold's their nose and those are who are deemed unemployable.
Being "good enough" will no longer be enough.
In fact, with the current and accelerating fierce global competition for jobs found today, being "good enough" is not enough and, in fact, it hasn't been enough to secure employment in most professional fields since the 2008 financial implosion. Worse, this competition is only becoming more severe and more fierce with each passing year.
This aggregate inflection point will also enable those who possess in-demand knowledge or very specialized skills to make or earn large sums of money, while those who are only marginally or barely employed or employable will be forced to fight it out for table scraps among huge masses, huge throngs of people who possess fungible, non-differentiated and completely commoditized skills and abilities.
The resultant fierce competition will, of course, quickly and brutally drive down the wages of the few workers in the fungible skills category who are even lucky enough to be employed. Meanwhile, the unemployable will be relegated to a lifetime of unemployment save for any work they can land through "make work" charity gigs or the perennial government "make work programs" such as making or maintaining trails in national parks or picking up trash along the freeway.
Coincidentally and perhaps fortuitously, Computerworld recently ran an article titled, One in three jobs will be taken by software or robots by 2025 in which the well-known research group, Gartner, predicted that technologies such as robots and drones will replace about a third of all workers by 2025.
Now, depending on your point of view, this prediction may strike you as provocative, thought-provoking or perhaps just plain laughable.
(As an aside, if you are one of the persons who finds this to be laughable, why not do yourself a favor and save or print out this article. Then in the near future you can use it to wipe away your tears or the tears of your kids, your grand kids or your friends who will soon discover that their just "good enough skills" or worse, fungible/commoditized skills are not viable, not demanded in the job market at hand.)
While we can haggle over the specific numbers, the regions, the industries and the job functions which are or which will be most affected by this as well as the estimated time frames (short-term, mid-term and long-term) before most of us will feel this convergence, we need to be aware that at some point this aggregated inflection point will take a huge bite out of our own employment prospects and/or brutally drive down our wages. The fact remains that this trend of convergence and automation is most certainly happening right now, it's been happening for some time and it's only going to continue to accelerate in the near future and well beyond that.
And to be crystal clear, the trend we speak of is the ever accelerating wave, the ever accelerating assault which is digitizating, automating, mechanizing and roboticizing you right out of a job.
This will continue until we may eventually find that most of our neighbors, perhaps even most members of our immediate family are adversely affected or simply unemployed.
Therefore, unless, unless, we take very clear, strategic, fast and decisive action to fully and completely understand what it is we face and are facing, why we face it and unless and until we resolve to improve ourselves to the new level and levels required to be competitive against these inexorable forces both our earnings potential as well as our very employability, our employment prospects are at risk, are in grave danger.
Although this may well be shocking for some, if not many, I'd like to think that for regular reader's of this blog this line of thought and discussion is really nothing new. It may be more complete and deep but really nothing new than our previous discussions.
In fact, you may well remember some of our earlier discussions regarding which can be found here (Our Robotic Future Accelerates) and here (How To Jump-Start Your Career In Japan (or Anywhere Else)). These are just two examples of many.
To quickly summarize and bring everyone up speed on those earlier discussions, we considered and analyzed what several aspects of the (local and global) job market will look in the near future (as we approach 2020 and 2025), and how that will affect both currently employed workers as well as those who are now or will be seeking employment.
Now, it can be expected and even predicted that naysayers, especially those who have studied economic and technological history, will immediately point to previous technological revolutions or economic tectonic shifts such as those found in the Agricultural Revolution, the First Industrial Revolution, the Second Industrial Revolution, the Information Age and so on. Specifically, they'll point to the empirical evidence which clearly shows, and demonstrates without a doubt, that although in the short term certain industries suffered (or even entire economies suffered), in aggregate, the long-term net gains from these economic revolutions and technological tectonic shifts were always producing greater wealth while fostering the development of more "better jobs" which paid better wages and benefits although these new jobs also required more skills and training to perform properly (or even to qualify for).
Although I don't disagree with this analysis for past economic and technological revolutions, I am here to tell you , right now, that this time it's different.
This time it's very different.
And here's why.
If we look at certain jobs in the past, say prior to the first Industrial Revolution, most everyone was involved in some sort of agricultural activity like farming or animal husbandry. Sure there were tailors, sword makers, prostitutes and cobblers but by and large agricultural focused work was crucial to the economy as well as the survival or individuals and their immediate or extended families or loved ones. And even before that or concurrently with that, some type of hunting, gathering, foraging or combination thereof was critical as well and for the same reasons.
Within the agricultural field, skills varied as did access to planting knowledge, crop rotation schedules or even the importance of it. Equally as varied was the work ethic of the individuals involved. And just as today, there were certainly a range of persons some of whom were super motivated people, some of whom were lazy people while still others might be characterized as "work an honest day for an honest wage" sort of people (aka "work to live, don't live to work").
As the industrial revolution spun up and took hold, it was the marginally productive workers who were the first to be attracted to or forced to take these new industrial jobs -- these factory jobs included mining jobs, laying railroad tracks driving or servicing a steam locomotive or building or maintaining a steam boiler and so on.
During the First Industrial Revolution we can see that for those moving off the land and into the industrial based jobs, they most often easily had sufficient skills to do so as the leap or jump, the gap in skills possessed of the agricultural worker to skills required for the industrial worker was non-existent at best or at worst was very, very minuscule as to be meaningless (see figure 1) .
In fact, in some cases moving from the old, technological obsolete occupation to the new occupation required no new skills. It was simply a slam-dunk, direct transfer of skills or in some cases it may even have actually required fewer skills (see figure 3).
They make one's transportation, either a horse, mule, donkey or automobile move forward and accelerate.
And while the production of gas pedals (accelerators) may have taken take a bit more skill in some cases (or even fewer skills in others) the fact remains that there was really nothing about making gas pedals that a former buggy whip factory worker would have found difficult let alone insurmountable (see figure 4).
And from here on out this is where the job market in general, and the employability of specific people, and skill sets in particular, goes absolutely haywire.
Bonkers may be a better word.
Huge gaps have already arisen in the required knowledge and requisite skill sets that determine who is gainfully employed, who is categorized as a member of the working poor and who is a tagged, bagged and warehoused as completely unemployable.
Already today, huge gaps exist in the acquisition of these requisite skills and in their subsequent monetizability. These skills and the monetization of these skills (by the employer) determines who is employed and unemployed and for the employed it determines what level of total compensation they can command, negotiate or dictate.
This trend, these gaps, and the resultant gap between the wages commanded will continue to quicken, widen and deepen.
And yet if we were to look back at the early days of the Information Age (1970's through 1990's) we can see that given an occupation such as a Taxi Driver or Delivery Driver a huge jump in skills and intellect were required to earn even an entry level position as a basic technology worker, say for technology work writing Cobol programs or just administering a mainframe, minicomputer or a pool of workstations.
And although the skills required to enter the early Information Age were perhaps an order or two of magnitude greater than what was required to be a Taxi Driver or Delivery Driver, the required skills needed to enter the information age as a Cobol programmer or system administrator (sys admin) were completely, absolutely and utterly laughable compared to what is required today to be even marginally employable the IT industry let alone what is required to land and hold a good job at what is considered a strong technology producing or technology-based firm like Google, Oracle, SalesForce, Facebook and so on. (see figure 5).
So given all of these benefits as well as the fact that it was so relatively easy to obtain the skills needed to land such plum jobs, why didn't all (or even most) the Taxi Drivers or Delivery Drivers just skill-up and become Cobol programmers?
What's the reason?Anyone want to venture a guess?
Was it because they just loved driving a cab or delivery truck too much?
Was it because they knew they could do the tech job but they didn't feel comfortable or were afraid to be paid vastly more money for this programming work?
Or was it because the prospect of having a superior career path complete with a Golden Career Path laid at their feet was just too much to take, too scary or too overwhelming?
Or could the explanation simply be that they were lacking not just the proper attitude and motivation to get the requisite skills such a job and career change dictated but that they further lacked the intellectual aptitude to do so?
Now, of course, many will simply blame the public school system for not teaching these skills (I can hear the complainers and perpetual excuse makers now) but such an excuse isn't good enough (and I'm not buying it). And even if it were the public school system that was "at fault" or "behind" who suffers from this? And can you ever tell me or point to a time when the public school system wasn't behind the curve?
In fact, the only time I think the public school system wasn't behind the curve was when it was churning out templated factory workers to work in the high-volume pre- and post-world war "stamp and assemble economy".
I do want to be clear.
The reason I ask this question, these questions, is not to hurt someone's feelings or denigrate anyone's job, occupation or career. No. Not at all. All jobs have value and all workers that do their work have dignity and honor and I respect that.
The underlying reason, in fact, the root cause of my questions and questioning is driven by the pundits who see this relentless onslaught of robots, software algorithms, automation and mechanization, which is consuming and now destroying a huge percentage of the manual and lower-level jobs currently in existence, as not just our collective future but they see it as a very good thing.
They see it as something to be lauded and applauded.
They see this destruction of these jobs as something which will "free" up these currently or formerly "repressed" laborers from their current "drudgery" and which will enable them to do "greater things", to supposedly take on work which is far more challenging in terms of the creative, psychological, emotional or intellectual skill sets than their current work now requires of them.
These pundits further believe that by "freeing" these workers from their "wage slave" jobs (i.e., trading time for money) and their apparently "miserable existences", these workers will then be able quickly and effortlessly "move upstream" in their skill sets to such an extent that these workers will simultaneously be moving up Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs towards Self-Actualization as well as much higher total compensation.
In theory, the pundits are most probably correct about all of this, that the workers could skill up, they could learn, they could earn far, far great salaries and they could move towards self-actualization.
And personally, I wish they were correct in that.
Imagine if all humans strove to reach their true potential. Imagine the benefit to mankind of what we could collectively accomplish if everyone were truly working to their God-given capacities.
Image if all the time now endlessly spent watching tv shows, perusing youtube, playing video game or chasing skirts in a bar could be collected or reclaimed and then applied to producing and creating rather than simply consuming, criticizing and complaining.
That would be close to nirvana in my mind.
But in reality, the pundits are nowhere near correct.
In fact, the pundits are dangerously incorrect on this topic. This is especially true given the current, and dare I say sorry, state of the current skill sets and knowledge possessed by the very persons who will be most negatively, most adversely, most tragically affected by this coming onslaught of mechanization and job market changes.
If you then couple this aforementioned reality with these folk's seemingly weak attitude and aptitude to pick up all of the new skills and knowledge they need, right now at this moment, to just have even the smallest hope of gaining employment in any of these "higher level jobs", this knowledge work, it quickly becomes painfully and tragically clear, it becomes abundantly clear that the promise these pundits offer is not just sorely and dangerously mismatched with the reality of the situation at hand but grossly unfit for consumption.
Consider the inconvenient fact that if these Taxi Drivers and Delivery Drivers couldn't muster themselves to acquire the basic skills needed to move intellectually upstream, even when it meant simply learning basic languages like Cobol or Fortran, how the heck can we ever expect them to be able to do it now that the employment requirements in the same field are so massive and getting higher by the year? (see figure 6)
Talk to just about any in-demand knowledge worker and you'll find that they all devote huge amounts of their time, energy and resources to the task of trying to stay relevant and current. They constantly work to acquire new skills, knowledge, apply new techniques, take new classes and earn new certifications.
Among this group, it's not unique. It's not even special.
It's simply a given. An expected reality.
The fact is that given the state of not just our "official" educational system (primary, secondary or college or university) but more importantly the general public's attitude towards identifying and acquiring monetizable skillsets as well as developing the aptitude needed to efficiently and effectively acquire it, all of this "move upstream to a world of knowledge, creativity and intellectual challenges" talk is really just a delirious and dangerous hallucinatory dream.
Think about it. Carefully.
Do you doubt any of this? Okay, let's just take a quick survey and kick the tires a bit.
How creative are the workers you personally know? The people you personally know? The neighbors you personally know? How many taxi drivers, delivery drivers, factory workers, heck, even knowledge workers like accountants or lab techs, do you personally know who have written books, created podcasts, written software, produced songs or participated in an art exhibition let alone organized their own showing?
I feel safe betting that the answer is very, very few to absolutely none.
So pray tell me how are these people going to successfully make this painful, costly and treacherous transition in skill sets and knowledge? And remember with everything coming down at once (from factory automation, machine vision, digitization of data, machine-to-machine (M2M) applications, the Internet of Things, the semantic web, autonomous vehicles, enhanced mechanization and roboticization) we can expect huge swaths of jobs to be slashed and then eliminated very, very quickly while the competition for the remaining jobs is driven sky high.
Then entire Econ 101 and realize that there will be massive downward pressure on the wages of these jobs.
If you are one of the folks who thinks my predictions about the unprecedented number and types of jobs which are first to be decimated and then eliminated, well, just take a quick gander at this short list I put together.
Feel free to click on the links for some short videos or in some cases a short article laying it all out.
Jobs Currently The Sights of Robots & About To Be Roboticized:
- Taxi drivers
- Delivery drivers
- Long haul truck drivers
- Warehouse workers
- Factory workers
- Security guards
- Police officers
- Commercial Pilots
- Cargo Pilots
- Military Pilots
- Food prep workers
- Ticket Takers
- Train Conductors
And it just goes on and on and on.
Remember, these are just a few of the applications I picked. There are literally hundreds and hundreds that I didn't list including robotic surgery, robotic lovers, robotic nannies and so on. Also remember that these are just a handful of the companies working on any one fields or on any one of these applications.
In reality, there are dozens of companies all around the world who are working to improve the sensors, the software algorithms, the energy sources and the electro-mechanical mechanisms in just any one field or application. In total there are hundreds and hundreds of these again to consider. I have only just very barely scratched the surface.
And as the industry grows and matures there will be even more market entrants producing this automation and roboticization technology.
I would also add that while it is just seems so easy to laugh at or pooh-pooh this current generation of robots as being too slow, too clumsy or just lame, you need to remember that this industry is still in a very, very nascent state and the market for robots is still emerging.
However, with the amount and quality of scientific brain power and electronic computing power available coupled with the literally "obscene" profits that the winners in this space are expected to make (and the economic signaling value of that), it is only a matter of time (10 to 15 years max) until you may well be working next to a robot or all robots or being served by one either in a restaurant, delivering your room service or placing chocolates on your pillow before giving your turndown service at the ritzy hotel you are staying at on your business trip.
And please note, that by robot I don't mean the ancient "caged robots" we are used to seeing on the Discovery Channel or television commercials that just did the welding or other very simple work on automotive assembly lines. I'm talking about modern, agile and often autonomous or nearly so robots.
“The future is already here – it's just not evenly distributed."
- William Gibson
That's right, the future is all around us. But it might not be clear to you yet. For example, if we consider M2M (Machine to Machine) infrastructure, this may well be invisible to you unless you work for a communication company like Vodafone or a supplier of the technology. If we are talking about automotive robots or machine vision, this may again be invisible to you unless you work in the field.
And on and on it goes.
In other cases, if you do look at it, you won't "see" it, because there won't be sufficient "density of deployment" to catch your attention, even if you do look at it.
And this is because, initially, you won't see an entire city of all of these robots. Or even enough of any particular robotic application.
Rather you'll see the bartender robots in parts of New York City, you'll see the security robot in a jewelry store in Chicago, you'll see the food prep robot working in a hospital cafeteria in Los Angeles. You'll come across the janitorial robot roaming the halls of a prestigious university in Europe. These robots will be scattered across different industries, applications, states and countries, thus, making the immediate impact extremely easy to miss until it's right on top of us. And yet we must keep in mind this:
"We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run."
- Ray Amaro
On the somewhat bright side, in the short run and even perhaps through 2025 or 2030, there will still be some workers in warehouses, some security guards and so on.
In fact, there may always still be some humans in those fields or many fields.
Yet, it is an absolute certainty that the absolute numbers of people employed in these fields will be an extremely small fraction of the numbers that used to be employed in these field while the competition for the few human jobs which do remain in these fields will be even higher and more fiercely ferocious than ever. Moreover, the actual requirements for said jobs in these fields will continue to rise dramatically while downward pressure on the wages offered will intensify.
Very soon being able to sit at a desk and watch a security camera video feed or being able to make an occasional foot patrol will no longer be enough to land a simple security job, let alone hold it for any reasonable amount of time.
Nope. You'll need much, much more skill and knowledge than that.
You may need years of management experience of people (this will be true for all of the people who remain in these jobs) vendors, projects and budgets. You may need to write programs or troubleshoot the software for the robots -- this may be the technical equivalent in the future as writing a formula or making a macro in Microsoft Excel is today.
If you can't do these things, well, you may find yourself most unwelcome in that field and 100% unemployed.
And this is just one example.
To see where we are now, and how fast we are moving to the future I have shared with you, it's very helpful to consider the very near past and where we came from.
The first video below is footage of a Ford auto factory, circa 1949 and it shows the assembly of very simple, very non-complex automobiles compared to the high complexity automobiles today. Remember today's automobiles are primarily constructed of a unibody and they have extremely narrow tolerances which require high precision wields and assembly work.
In the second video footage, which was taken in 2012, we see a modern Ford auto factory. Does anything strike you as very, very different in this second video?
Ford Factory 1949: Automobiles Being Assembled
Jobs are about to become very, very scarce, especially jobs that pay a solid wage.
Now, before you say that all of this is patently unfair and that companies somehow should and need to hire more people and/or create more jobs, let me set you straight.
Businesses don't create jobs, they are not in the business of creating jobs.
As Peter Drucker observed many years ago:
The purpose of business is to create and keep customers.
That's it. Period.
And before you tell me or before you blurt out that the poor Taxi Driver in question, whom we have so bullied here, could actually do the work and gain the knowledge required for these modern tech jobs but can't because he or she either doesn't have the money to go back to school, I'll tell you that the Taxi Driver doesn't need to go to school as he or she could learn all they need from free online.
There are countless free resources on the internet in these areas. These range from Khan Academy to Open Source Software to online websites that tutor and teach you (self-directed and self-paced) how to program or develop software in any number of languages
If you then go on to tell me that, well, the Taxi Driver doesn't have time to learn all of this using the online resources talked about, I would then ask you how does he or she find the time to watch the SF Giants, Boston Red Sox, Nascar or just hang out in the bar with friends?
If you then tell me that the Taxi Driver needs to rest and can't be learning all the time then I'll tell you, straight out, they cannot now and cannot never expect to make it in tech because in tech you must be a lifelong learner to make it. You need to be devoted.
And soon every job will be tech. Every job will be "intellectually upstream".
The fact is, tech (like so many other industries and/or functional areas today), moves extremely fast and it's only accelerating. There's no slowing down. There's no going back.
And if you don't find a lifetime learner's program to be kosher then don't even waste your time trying to get in. Instead try to find a comfortable room in the Government Unemployment Warehouses (GUW) which will most certainly be constructed by robots to house the unemployed and unemployable.
In addition, if you tell me that the Taxi Driver needs a teacher to hold his or her hand to learn or that he or she doesn't know how to use a basic search engine to find this information, well, again that is just immediate proof and a litmus test that he or she won't ever make it in tech because not only does tech require an attitude and disposition which favors intellectual curiosity and life time learning but it requires a person be a self starter.
All the skills and technologies one needs to get a foothold in or even thrive in the tech market and industry exists right now for free.
Again all of this is not an effort to belittle or pummel Taxi Drivers, Manual Laborers, Cashiers or even customer service or tech support people or another group of workers mentioned or not mentioned in this article.
Rather it's a brutally honest effort to expose the lie that "this new tech revolution is going to be great for laborers" and that this "new tech revolution is no different from any other".
Anyone that tells you that is either (a) stupid, (b) incompetent, (c) a liar or some combination thereof.
It isn't going to be great. And it's 100% different.
The purpose of this is to expose the lie that there's a place for all or at least a place for the majority of these soon to be displaced workers in the new economy which we will all face soon enough.
And it's a lie because there isn't a place. And there isn't a place because the public schools (private as well) will never change in time if at ever. And the people who most need these changes and skills are the very ones with the lowest attitude and motivation to take the action and learn. There are also most often the ones with the lowest or weakest aptitude to do so and least likely to make the massive, required changes in their life - no more bars, no television, throw away video games, turn off the ball game.
This is not a value judgement but an observation.
What is needed is the ability and propensity to read. Study. Apply. Make mistakes. Improve. Learn. Rinse & Repeat.
This is probably politically incorrect which is exactly why you won't read of it in many other places and exactly why it's true. Political correct was primarily developed to defend lies while suppressing truths.
Much of the impetus to replace humans with machines and/or software comes right down to ROI and legal exposure. All of the current government regulations and taxes on the books make human workers extremely expensive as does having to contend with labor unions, civil complaints, the legal exposure from possible sexual harassment or power harassment (which by the way, your firm could be liable for even if no one in your firm engages in such behavior. It only takes an outside contractor, vendor or even key client to do this to one of your employees on your premises or even their own while your employee is there).
With robots these worries, fears, costs, legal liabilities and exposure are all a thing of the distant past. Mostly certainly, we'll see the same thing happening the fast food industry as workers and labor unions try and push for a $15 USD per hour minimum wage which is not economically viable.
Expect to see the introduction of automated ordering and cash handling systems and robots (Baxter, etc.) who can assembly burgers, sandwiches or even throw pizza pies.
And never forget that these systems and robots never get sick, never file worker's comp claims, they don't sexually harass or power harass others (so the legal exposure is low to non-existent), they don't complain, they don't steal, they don't embezzle, they don't unionize, they don't strike and they don't get tired.
Even more importantly, they can learn quickly by downloading new programs or in some cases they can be programmed much like the old macro recorders in spreadsheets whereby an operator simply moves the robots arms, legs, etc. in the desired directions or sequence and it is recorded for later playback.
Those playback scripts or recordings can then be edited, combined or reused in a library of programs.
In addition, these programs and this knowledge is also immediately accessible by all robots within a community, between communities and even intergenerationally.
Therefore, there are never any "entry level" robots. All robots on the job begin at the highest level of seniority, knowledge and expertise as the most senior and knowledgeable robot already on the job or who has already done the job.
But what will and what can all of these displaced workers do for a living, for an occupation?
We'll talk about all of this in future blog posts but for now the operative concept is Future Proof.
You and/or your children need to Future Proof yourself starting now.
We've discussed this before but we'll get into more detail of exactly what this means, what you should be doing and how to do it.
Until then, thanks for joining us!