Tuesday 15 October 2019

How to prepare for future where tech takes over jobs

A lab-grown meat burger made from cultured beef. Photo: David Parry/PA
A lab-grown meat burger made from cultured beef. Photo: David Parry/PA

Gina London

'It's time to stop creating committees and start creating priorities.' That was the dramatic call to action from Rohit Talwar, CEO of Fast Future and a keynote speaker at this year's European Federation of Consulting Engineers Associations conference which I facilitated.

We were surrounded by top executives from 28 member countries joined in their commitment to not only designing buildings, bridges and motorways but also - like leaders in any industry - in their commitment toward attracting and retaining top talent.

How do we plan and prepare for a future where the jobs outlook is uncertain?

Fortunately, for you, dear readers, you have me. And this week through me, you have Rohit. Brace yourselves and read on. He cautions that a 'wait and see' attitude could be "calamitously risky."

"New industry sectors such as laboratory-grown meat, vertical farming, autonomous vehicles, and synthetic materials will be highly automated from the outset, requiring very different capabilities and a highly skilled workforce," Rohit writes in his latest book, which was provided to conference attendees, A Very Human Future.

As you read the innovations in the list above, you can imagine what it might mean to farmers and truck drivers, but also consider the transitions needed for production workers, shift managers, warehouse assistants and even corporate lawyers.

"When the change happens, it will cascade and accelerate, rapidly leaving the unprepared in a paralysing state of shock," Rohit warns. "I believe it is far better to anticipate on a more sustainable footing - thus ensuring enough resilience to cope with the risk of large-scale technological unemployment."

He outlines five fundamental actions that forward-looking businesses should support and proactive governments should adopt.

1. Experiment with Guaranteed Basic Incomes and Services

A 2017 interview with Tesla's Elon Musk went viral when he deadpanned: "There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better."

He also predicted governments will have to come up with some form of Universal Basic Income (UBI). Since then, the notion is getting more traction.

While some countries are resisting the idea as it sounds too close to communism, others like Finland, India, Germany and Canada are already testing and examining models.

Rohit says now is the time to experiment to "understand the concept, assess the social impact, measure the costs and prepare while there's still time".

2. Expand Support for Startups

The initial findings from the Finland experiment showed that the unemployed people who received a monthly stipend were "happier" than those who did not, but it did not help them find another form of work.

However, Rohit points out that in the automated future we will have to take more control of our own destiny. "One way is to create jobs or small businesses that are far less immune to risks of technology replacing humans," he says. More support for startup creation and expansion would quicken the pace.

3. Increase Research and Development in Key Knowledge Sector

Rohit urges altruism here. "Not all R&D must be based on a return on investment - some has to be undertaken for the betterment of society." Research funding must be expanded now to innovate and produce materials and processes for more jobs for tomorrow.

4. Rethink Education at Every Level

Whether it's SATs in the US or Leaving Certs here, there's still a lot of emphasis on rote learning-derived test scores at the same time educators understand problem-solving, critical thinking, team-building, resilience and emotional intelligence are what's required for future workplaces.

Ireland has a clear advantage over the US since its costs for tertiary education are dramatically less than even the lowest-priced universities in my home country. Rohit contends charges imposed on students pursing higher education need to be re-assessed globally. "We need to help people develop higher-level skills to help them learn rapidly and transition into jobs that don't even exist today."

5. Address the Mental Health Challenge

Predicting a future with massive potential job loss doesn't make for easy writing. It won't be easy to endure either. Rohit makes the enlightened recommendation to start training now as a therapist to be ready to help when the unemployment challenge starts taking its toll on stress levels in a short two-to-four years' time.

The transition clearly has challenges. But with proper preparation, perhaps we can redefine our relationships with work and maybe even with ourselves.

Tip of The Communicator Cap

Finally, my latest shout-out for purposeful communications goes across the pond to early-morning front desk clerk, Hannah, at the AC Marriott in Cleveland, Ohio. After wrangling in vain with the hotel's automated online and phone booking services which could not process my international phone number for a US hotel booking, I called directly. Hannah picked up. I began with a little rant on my frustration with their non-human system. "Not that you had anything to do with that," I summed up, grateful for her courteous, efficient and professional manner as she made my reservation.

"Sometimes it's enough just to listen," she kindly replied. Amen to that!

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