Credit: C J Shin/Wikipedia

How you can get a job in the robot economy

Anxious about AI? Be flexible, stay human and remember to plan for the future, says Chris Jones.

by Chris Jones
Last Updated: 22 Jun 2016

As you’ve no doubt heard, the robots are coming. Thanks to automation and artificial intelligence, we may be facing the biggest upheaval in the labour market in a century. The Bank of England predicts that up to 15 million jobs could be automated, the British Retail Consortium warns of a 60% risk to retail jobs, while PwC anticipates the world’s first fully automated, robot-served hotel by 2022.

These advancements could boost national productivity and efficiency, helping businesses cut costs. But they also bring uncertainty for the rest of us workers; will we be employable in the robot economy? It isn’t only so-called ‘lower skilled’ workers who should be concerned.

In their book The Future of the Professions, economists Richard and Daniel Susskind note that already 60 million eBay disagreements every year are resolved using ‘online dispute resolution’ software rather than resort to a traditional lawyer. And only this week top law firm Linklaters announced it’s working with an AI provider for contracts, data searches and other tasks.

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But it’s not all bad news. The robot economy will also create new jobs and opportunities. The people and companies that will do best in this new world are those that start ‘robot proofing’ now. So what is the recipe for success in the future economy? I clearly don’t have a crystal ball, but I can make an informed guess that eagerness and willingness to learn will be crucial. We’ll need to continually develop skills such as entrepreneurialism, resilience, communication and adaptability.

As technology makes the traditional office set-up a thing of the past, flexibility will be prized and the notion of a permanent employee will change. That’s not to say we’ll all be freelancers (although part-time and remote working are growing trends) but that both employees and managers will need to hone the ability to maintain relationships from afar and become more comfortable with different working patterns.

Interpersonal skills will be at a premium – robots are unlikely to have an easy rapport with colleagues and customers. Strong leadership and management skills will also matter more. You’ll need to be able to motivate staff in a world where key functions are automated and the environment is incredibly dynamic. On the plus side, automation may mean the more boring aspects of the workday are minimised, leaving workers to focus on more stimulating tasks.

It’s also important to remember that, as technology continues to advance, the challenge of managing it will only grow. Businesses will need high-skilled employees with excellent technical competence, strong project management skills and the ability to digest data. We can’t assume that because the next generation are ‘digital natives’ they’ll automatically have the skills to work with complex AI and robotics. These skills will need to be developed and nurtured within both education and the workplace.

Above all, this means continually updating and developing our skills in an environment where AI and robotics will be developing at lightning speed. So the challenge for all of us will be to develop our own skills as quickly as the technological advancements are being made.

For recruiters and managers, taking action now will help to safeguard your company’s success in the future. HR teams and senior management need to make a priority of mapping the skills that they are likely to need in the future, and how they will develop them. They must work out what jobs they will need to fill in five or ten years’ time.

This is an opportunity to look at areas where technology can improve productivity and performance. But, as many companies will discover as a result of this exercise, it won’t be possible to meet all of these needs through robots, nor will it be easy to simply recruit for the new skills you will need. So, managers and L&D teams need to shape their in-work training to support the continual development of new skills, and consider issues around managing talent and retraining current employees. That means new ways of helping people develop or recognise their skills and embracing adaptable modes of training that fit into people’s lives.

Humans will be in demand in the robot economy – it may simply be that they are prized for a different set of skills than now. The future of work might be something out of science fiction – but with strong planning, training and skills development, it doesn’t have to be a horror film too.

Chris Jones is chief executive of City & Guilds Group.

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