Robot-proof your job

December 19th, 2016

Detroit was on the verge of collapse. The city was in financial ruin and the crime rate was exploding. So politicians turned to robots to reverse a catastrophic situation. But their idea, a robotic police force programmed to automatically patrol the streets at little cost to taxpayers, made things even worse. The robots malfunctioned and went on a murderous rampage.

That, of course, is the plot to the 1987 film RoboCop, a science fiction movie that pits robots against humanity.

The future of automation in the workplace will not play out like that movie - at all! But the film makes an obvious point about automation: technology can solve problems but not completely take the place of humans.

The question that vexes a lot of employers and employees, though, is which jobs can robots do and which jobs are better left to humans.

Competition in the future world of work

The thought of automation is a frightening one for many – not because of the violent robots of the movies but the technology that reduces the need for humans in the workplace.

Some evidence suggests those fears are not unwarranted – in fact, a recent study suggests 42% of Canadians are at risk of losing work to robots.

From pharmacist to nurses to lawyers, here a list of 19 jobs that robots could foreseeably take.

But there are some nuances to automation.

Lauren Friese, the founder of TalentEgg.ca, a popular online career resource for students and recent graduates, points to the last time society was concerned with automation.

“This whole concept of robots taking jobs is sort of a tape that’s playing again. A couple decades ago, it was in the automobile production line,” she said.

Indeed, technological advances in manufacturing sectors has shown to increase the number of jobs, as innovation keeps industries like the auto industry competitive and productive. While it’s true some work was automated, more workers benefited from innovations in the workplace.

“It’s not that fewer jobs become available,” Friese says. “It’s that they become different types of jobs.”

The MIT Technology Review tracked the changes in work as it relates to technology. “At least since the Industrial Revolution began in the 1700s, improvements in technology have changed the nature of work and destroyed some types of jobs in the process,” writes MIT Technology Review editor David Rotman.

“In 1900, 41% of Americans worked in agriculture; by 2000, it was only 2%. Likewise, the proportion of Americans employed in manufacturing has dropped from 30% in the post–World War II years to around 10% today—partly because of increasing automation, especially during the 1980s.”

How to beat out a robot on the job market

So how do you beat a robot? How did the good people of Detroit take back the city from haywire robot police? How did Gary Kasperov beat the computer Deep Blue in chess in 1996? How did auto and agricultural workers stay employed in the 1900s?

Friese says one way to get ahead of a robot in the job market is to do something robots can’t: develop the ability to adapt and constantly learn new skills. “It used to be that you learn this one skill and depend on that skill for your entire career,” she said. “But the workplace today is changing constantly.”

This starts early, she argues.

Friese argues work skills have to be nurtured, not learned. So going to school to learn typing skills is not a way to outshine an automated typing machine. But nurturing soft skills, like writing, storytelling, relatability and other skills, make you different from a machine.

“Anyone can be trained on how to do a specific thing,” says Friese. “But those who are trained on how to learn and how to think will go farther in their careers.”

The human knack for adaptability can be honed by study, but not necessarily in the hard skills like engineering or business taught at that university level. Subjects like

philosophy can be equally as important to create transferable skills.

‘Learn to learn’

A computer is typically programmed to do one or two tasks in the automated workplace. A human can constantly be reprogrammed to do any number of tasks – if that human is OK with change.

So when considering a career, instead of learning a single trade or skill, learn how to adapt.

“Learn how to learn,” she says. “Constantly reinvent yourself with new skills.”

Friese says the job market of the future will see less value in a “ready-made” employee who has all the skills for the job before being hired compared with someone who has potential to learn new skills and adapt to different work environments.

In other words, train yourself to adapt to robots, not to compete with them.

Fighting technology might’ve worked in 1980s science fiction movies – and all the many sequels – but now is the time to learn to work with automation.

“We’re in a world where were blessed to have technology changing constantly,” says Friese. “It can be a burden to keep up with, but it also creates a lot of opportunities.”


Image:  Robocop 1987, Directed by Paul Verhoeven. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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