5 Ways to Outsmart the Robots That Are Stealing Our Jobs

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Workers of all sorts, from white-collar to blue-collar, face the possibility of being displaced by automation.

The threat

The danger is not just from assembly-line machines performing tasks humans have done, like stamping out plastic tableware or flipping hamburgers. Smart software and automated processes are handling tasks that until recently it seemed only a human could do, including writing articles like this one. (Already, CNN says, computers are writing news reports about corporate earnings and sports events.)

The U.S. presidential candidates mostly ignore the subject, arguing instead about whether jobs are lost to immigration, trade agreements or off-shoring.

“Disruptive labor market changes, including the rise of robots and artificial intelligence, will result in a net loss of 5.1 million jobs over the next five years in 15 leading countries,” according to a recent report by the World Economic Forum, as covered by Reuters. A total of 7.1 million jobs will be lost by 2020, with most of the losses in office and administrative jobs, the WEF report estimates. The losses will be balanced by the creation of just two million new jobs.

10 years ahead

The Pew Research Center’s 2014 report “AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs” found wide agreement among experts. Automation will “permeate wide segments of daily life by 2025, with huge implications for a range of industries such as health care, transport and logistics, customer service, and home maintenance,” the report says.

The experts disagree about what this means for human workers:

  • Half predict trouble: Of the nearly 2,000 experts invited to contribute to the report, half expect “significant numbers” of blue-collar and white-collar jobs to be displaced. They predict increasing income inequality, greater numbers of people who are unemployable and “breakdowns in the social order.”
  • Half expect triumph: The other half disagree. Although automation will eliminate many human occupations, “they have faith that human ingenuity will create new jobs, industries, and ways to make a living.”

Is your job in danger?

All of us who work, whether optimists or pessimists, owe it to ourselves to look at the big picture and ask, “Could my job be automated?

In The New York Times, authors David H. Autor and David Dorn write:

Computers excel at “routine” tasks: organizing, storing, retrieving and manipulating information, or executing exactly defined physical movements in production processes. These tasks are most pervasive in middle-skill jobs like bookkeeping, clerical work and repetitive production and quality-assurance jobs.

It’s too soon to know how automation will affect many jobs and what fields and tasks will require humans. As John Markoff, science writer for The New York Times, tells Pew:

“There will be a vast displacement of labor over the next decade. That is true. But, if we had gone back 15 years who would have thought that ‘search engine optimization’ would be a significant job category?”

How, then, can working people respond? Here are five survival tactics:

1. Learn all you can

We are, as a society, not well-prepared for this change. Individuals will need to assess their own situations and decide how to meet the threat to their livelihoods. Should you use a career coach or a career counselor? Maybe. But before committing to a career path or to spending money on counseling or training, learn everything you can about the future of your field or the field you want to enter. Find out:

  • What types of jobs will be replaced?
  • Which kinds of jobs will remain in demand?
  • What skills will you need to do them?

Search the Internet, look for books, articles and reports on these subjects and query professional associations and unions. Go in person to your public library and explain your search to a librarian. A well-trained librarian will be your most valuable ally at this stage.

2. Test your assumptions

Next, test your ideas and conclusions against reality by interviewing numerous people in your industry. This is called “informational interviewing,” described here by the University of California, Berkeley’s career center.

Wait to spend money on preparing for a job or career until after you have thoroughly researched the field, including job-shadowing several people who do the work you want to do. (Monster.com explains job shadowing.)

3. Become your own advocate

There is no shortage of people and companies offering career counseling, education and job training. But since you can’t afford to squander precious resources:

  • Thoroughly understand what you are buying and why it is needed before spending money.
  • Check the credentials of every person and program you consider working with. (Ask your librarian for help with that.)
  • Avoid open-ended relationships with counselors or training programs.
  • Be suspicious of vague or unsupported promises.

Certified career coach Donna Sweidan tells LearnVest the difference between career coaching and career counseling:

  • Coaching is (or should be) solution-oriented. It involves identifying concrete steps you can take to get where you want to go.
  • Counseling is more “process-driven,” looking at behavioral, emotional or psychological issues that might get in your way.

Before signing up for guidance or training, understand and, if possible, obtain in writing:

  • A clear description of exactly you’ll receive.
  • How many sessions or classes you are buying.
  • The total cost.
  • How this will contribute to your bottom line.

4. Be a human who will thrive

The humans who will do well in this new environment are ones who are curious, who reason clearly, think on their feet and adapt creatively to new circumstances.

We humans excel at qualitative analysis, at understanding the meaning of information and at working with other humans. Compassion, empathy and the ability to nurture are not, at the moment, anyway, part of a robot’s skill set.

“Health care, education, and caring for the elderly and children were all seen as occupations that would still require a human touch,” says Wired.

“I strongly hope that teachers, doctors and judges will remain human because sometimes you need someone to talk to,” Nello Cristianini, professor of artificial intelligence at the University of Bristol tells the BBC.

The New York Times article describes types of work on the higher and lower ends of the jobs spectrum that robots cannot do. On the high end are:

[S]o-called abstract tasks that require problem-solving, intuition, persuasion and creativity. These tasks are characteristic of professional, managerial, technical and creative occupations, like law, medicine, science, engineering, advertising and design.

On the lower end, the article’s authors say there are jobs requiring little education, but lots of uniquely human capabilities:

[S]o-called manual tasks, which require situational adaptability, visual and language recognition, and in-person interaction. Preparing a meal, driving a truck through city traffic or cleaning a hotel room present mind-bogglingly complex challenges for computers.

Those jobs are not expected to pay well, however, since there will be no shortage of humans who can do them.

At the moment, here are some of the types of jobs in demand:

5. Take on school debt very warily

You’ve certainly heard about the school loan crisis. Two of the contributing factors are:

  • Innocence: Students and families who were uninformed and overly optimistic about the financial benefits of schooling took on much more debt than their careers would allow them to repay. In many cases they got poor guidance or no guidance at all.
  • Predatory companies: Many lenders and schools are in the business of selling loan products. Trusting students have been confused or misled when their schools pushed loans that benefitted the schools and lenders more than the students.

Be very wary borrowing for education and training. Read stories at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s website of people struggling to repay student loans and see the bureau’s guides on school loans.

The CFPB tools help you make realistic calculations about how and when you’ll repay the loan. Never borrow more than you can realistically repay.

Share your thoughts and concerns about the job competition from robots in comments below or on our Facebook page.

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