Advancements in Automation: Potential Impacts on Workforce and Education

Advancements in technology have often led to technological unemployment. A new object or machine is invented that can accomplish a task once assigned to a human. The replaced person is out of work until he or she can find a similar job or retrain. Since the Luddites of the early 19th century, we have seen this pattern periodically.

Recent trends tell a slightly different story. New advancements in automation have led to the replacement of large numbers of mid-skilled jobs with high-skilled ones. As a result, workers often have to default to lower skilled positions if they don’t have the time or money to invest in higher education. This in part has led to the present reduction in the middle class and  expanding gap between the rich and poor. While this trend alone is frightening, there is the potential that as technology continues to evolve—specifically artificial intelligence (AI)—larger and larger swaths of the workforce will be displaced.

Following advancements in AI, future students may face a highly altered job market. One where even high-skilled work has low job security. Many predict that artificial intelligence will evolve to deal with more flexible and creative tasks that are currently unique to humans. McKinsey & Company showed that current technologies could already automate 45% of the activities people are paid for, while a 2013 Oxford study predicted that 47% of jobs have a high risk of being automated in the future. Though frightening, some would argue that there is no reason to worry as new jobs will arise to support automation and other new technologies. Even so, some worries persist. One fear is that automation will progress too quickly, eliminating jobs faster than new ones can be created or workers can retrain. Universities need to be prepared for this scenario.

Higher-ed has a role to play in helping prepare students for the present and future effects of automation. Among the questions that must be addressed in regards to the shifting workforce dynamics are:

1. How can we prepare current students for the future workforce?

A  report put out by the Office of the President in December 2016 titled “Artificial Intelligence, Automation, and the Economy” argues that:

“College- and career-ready skills in math, reading, computer science, and critical thinking are likely to be among the factors in helping workers successfully navigate through unpredictable changes in the future labor market”

Others similarly argue that we should focus more on general skills like effective communication, social intelligence, and general technical literacy. Developing such skills would give students a foundation through which they could be effective in many careers. Students would then learn job specific skills and knowledge on the job.

2. How can we better foster life-long learning?

As the labor market shifts, many students may have to gain new skills throughout their life to stay competitive in the labor market.  Therefore, it is important to develop strategies to educate students more efficiently, returning them to the workforce as quickly as possible. As a result, universities will have to continue to develop pathways for adult students. This would include offering more career services to improve guidance for those in career transitions. It might also mean increasingly accepting experiential learning credit and flexible degrees to shorten education times and make it easier to for students to juggle other career and family obligations. In the long run, universities may also have to rely upon online and personalized learning to a greater extent than they do now in order to help identify the best opportunities to retrain students based on their current skill gaps. Artificial intelligence could potentially be leveraged to for this purpose.

3. How can we keep courses up to date as technical expectations and industry standards change more rapidly due to automation?

One potential solution is creating closer public-private partnerships in which industries are tasked with determining what skills they will need in the foreseeable future.  This information can then be used to guide students into fields that will be in demand upon graduation. The skills future initiative in Singapore does this by asking industries to put out maps that explain how the industry will likely change in the coming years, which can then be used to help students decide what courses they take. Light Weight Innovations for Tomorrow (LIFT) has a similar approach. The program stimulates collaboration between universities, industry, and government which helps keep course content relevant for current and future needs. This in turn creating a pipeline of talent into the advanced materials manufacturing industry benefiting both students and the industry.

These questions do not encompass all automation concerns, but are meant to help universities begin thinking about the possible effects advancements in automation might have on the labor market as well as how these might be addressed. Many other questions are sure to arise as the technology and policy around automation start to take a more definite form. Universities must be prepared to adapt accordingly or else risk losing their value to future students.

This post was written By Matthew Guyer. A student intern at the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities studying systems engineering at the University of Virginia.

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