Brad Keywell


Future of Jobs

Charles Darwin would have a lot to say about how humans will adapt to this Fourth Industrial Revolution. For one, I believe he’d tell us that we’ll evolve.

Over the past six decades, you might expect to find a graveyard of decimated professions due to automation. In fact, the opposite is true. Economist James Bessen studied the effects of automation on jobs and found that automation has made humans fully obsolete in only one job out of the 270 that were listed in the 1950 US Census -- the elevator operator.

To be clear, many other jobs did disappear.  But their disappearance was actually part of an evolution.  Roles evolved -- from telegraph operator to the telephone operator, from airline ticket agents to customer service at online travel sites. Technology changed the organization of work between occupations and between industries, and all the while global population continued to increase along with demand and consumption. And as surprising as it may sound, partial automation from technology often leads to net new job creation; a classic example, ATMs actually led to more banks and bank tellers, not less.

Today’s fear is that there will be a much faster impact on jobs than we experienced last century.  The fears have no answer, and thus are best captured by the questions. What are the effects of AI on the workplace? What will robots do to the workforce? How best to retrain/reskill workers? How to mitigate knowledge loss when entire generations of experts retire without replacement? How best to integrate new technologies that lead to greater productivity through automation? 

I believe in the power of evolution, of the ability of people to learn new things and embrace opportunity. Which explains my belief that there is much to be optimistic about. History shows that technology is a net new job creator, even when legacy industries and jobs are displaced. A century ago, one-half of the U.S. labor force worked on farms; in 2000 that figure was down to less than two percent. What happened to the citizens out of work in agriculture?  They changed, adapted, learned, and progressed.

A new report from the World Economic Forum found that AI and automation will create 58 million more jobs than they displace by 2022. 75 million jobs may disappear, but 133 million will be created. No doubt, the nature of work is changing -- machines are expected to perform about 42 percent of all current tasks in the workplace by 2022, compared to only 29 percent today. I see this change as inevitable, not optional.

The report by WEF outlines what business, government and workers must proactively plan and implement for in the next few years, including robotization, changing employment types, reskilling/upskilling and emerging in-demand roles. Two investment decisions, in particular, will be essential: whether to prioritize automation or augmentation and whether or not to invest in workforce reskilling.

There are recent examples that demonstrate proactive strategies to prepare for fast-approaching change.

AT&T recognized that only 50% of their 250,00 employees had necessary science/tech/engineering skills, and ~100,000 workers in hardware functions risked obsolescence. In response, this year it launched a major global reskilling program, called Future Ready, investing $1 billion in a web-based multiyear vocational upskilling and educational effort. They have launched Career Intelligence, a digital portal that lets people see available jobs, skills required, potential salary ranges and future salary potential.

At a much smaller but no less impactful scale, Kentucky-based Bit Source hired former coal miners and taught them how to code, and had almost 1000 applicants to their 10 posted jobs.

At Uptake, the company I have led since its founding in 2014, we work with some of the world’s most critical industries, including transportation, mining, and energy. Our customers include the US Army, Berkshire Hathaway Energy and its subsidiary MidAmerican Energy Company, and Progress Rail. The industrial world is grappling with issues of reskilling, digital transformation, and impending widespread automation.

We believe that the future of industry will be human-centric, and that humans will leverage technology and artificial intelligence to be better in every way.  With that lens, we have expert teams at Uptake dedicated to training front-line employees of our customers to ensure that our applications are fully adopted and leveraged for outcomes. Even further, we principally believe in building enterprise software that meets customers where they are at, is empathetic to the user, easy and fast to implement, and as beautiful and intuitive as consumer applications.

While the rewards that will come from the Fourth Industrial Revolution are staggering, they will not be evenly distributed.  Those who adapt, learn, and embrace this change will survive and thrive. I agree with the Founder and Executive Chairman of WEF, Klaus Schwab, who said, “It is critical that business take an active role in supporting their existing workforces through reskilling and upskilling, that individuals take a proactive approach to their own lifelong learning, and that governments create an enabling environment to facilitate this workforce transformation.”  I believe Charles Darwin would also agree with Professor Schwab -- in 2018, evolution is alive and well.

Share on social: ︎ ︎

© Brad Keywell 2021