I was at a meeting recently. It was your classic round-robin of office supervisors all reporting out to one of the rare higher level managers. Typical of these meetings, to make sure everybody was on the same page, the senior manager went over a bunch of news items of Interest to the local area supervisors. One of the news items that caught my attention immediately was about a new software update that would allow customers to do a chunk of work themselves online that used to be done by the staff in the individual offices. I felt a strong sense of irony because I knew that this particular agency was under pressure to cut costs. This new software package would absolutely mean displacement of office workers either through attrition or “realignment of resources” ie layoffs. The ironic element was simply that part of the mission of this agency was to give people skills to get and keep jobs.
This was one small example of something that I keep seeing again and again with conversations in and around Workforce Development. In a nutshell, artificial intelligence or AI, is becoming so prevalent that it’s going to disrupt many industries and many people will lose their jobs to the continual evolution of computer networks that are always learning from crowdsourced knowledge. As an individual who is formally trained in, and highly aware of, technology I know this isn’t another doom and gloom prediction. It’s not just Tech CEOs talking about universal socialized payment programs or self-driving vehicles as those are just the marquee indicators. It’s everywhere. When I look at the news coming out of Silicon Valley, Sometimes I feel like every single penny of venture capital is going right to furthering the development of professional level job destroying technology.
So option one for me is something that I have done for a while which is put on my luddite shirt and scream “Danger Will Robinson, Danger!” The challenge here is that this is going to be a lot like everything else on the hype cycle. We are going to over think the short term impact but under think the real long term change to society and the working professional class.
The hype cycle is a well known tech investment theory that originated several years ago. The technology in the cycle is updated annually by Gartner, the American research, advisory and information technology firm which created it. The theory describes a hype bubble that encompases interest and investment in almost all new technologies. It’s also offers a fantastic visualization of how we aggregately are considering the current technologies in development that will affect our lives. Artificial Intelligence has been around forever and only now is it starting to creep up the plateau of productivity. It’s still early days yet, but the technorati are definitely figuring out how to drive operational efficiencies by using AI. Like all technology over the last decade I suspect that the development of AI will destroy more jobs than it creates.
So what do you do?
Figuring out what to do is tough. What makes it so difficult is that you can’t really predict what’s going to happen. Well when I say you can’t predict you can’t predict broadly, but I do feel that people who are very niche oriented in their career can probably see some specific areas ripe for disruption. As an example anybody who took an honest look at the taxi industry as it stood before Uber would have called it a racket. You may not have known how it would have been disrupted but I could believe that many people working within that industry would have looked at it and said something is going to happen to change all this. It’s that feeling that something is just wrong with the way everything is structured and needs to change sooner rather than later that is a really good indicator of impending tech disruption. This is why the two tent pole industries of healthcare and education seem like areas of intense opportunity for massive disruption to me. This disruption will definitely include Artificial Intelligence.
As I said, it’s hard to know exactly what to do if you see a potential for disruption. For example if I was successful in the taxi business but was worried about a disruption in my business I probably would have focused my energies on building the auto maintenance and repair side of my organization. I’d give up the high dollar taxi cab rentals and fares and specialize on keeping vehicles on the road for those who are scraping by under the new Uber and Lyft paradigm. Since we don’t really know how we’re going to get disrupted in any industry, the strategies we keep in reserve all have to be a bit broad. The one commonality is that if you have a single source of expertise or revenue in an industry ripe for disruption then I would be worried and starting to consider options.
One strategy is the classic “If you can’t beat them join them!”. Since AI will be the disruptor, you can go get some training in computer science and add it to whatever it is you do and go join a company that’s trying to do the displacing. This is kind of a big commitment because it may require a move and huge gamble vis-à-vis an expensive investment in more education. When I say may, I really mean, it absolutely will require all of those things and many other sacrifices. The one guarantee with this approach is that you will be uncomfortable. You will have to leave the familiar, learn difficult things to understand, take on large amounts of risk, and put everything else in your life on hold for a huge amount of time. This is like trying to turn an ocean liner. It takes a ton of effort but once you get going you’ll start sailing in the other direction and it’ll be hard to get knocked off your new course. Personally, I’d do it if I wasn’t so risk averse. I know how in demand good artificial intelligence experts are. Like the vast majority of the workforce I just don’t have the desire to go back to school for four to six years and then start at the bottom again. Then again that’s why the supply of AI experts is so low. If the IT companies would pay me my current salary and benefits for the period of time it took to get up to speed, I would absolutely go back to school and become an AI programmer or project manager in a heartbeat.
You could do the equivalent of ‘Stop this Ship, I want to get off!’ I.e. You could give up and go teach yourself a trade like Plumbing or electrical. Those jobs are in high demand right now. They pay very well and it may be worth it if you’re on the lower end of the professional class. If your making 40K a year and don’t mind taking a hit financially for a couple of years and doing things like crawling under houses, after two years of apprenticing in one of these trades you’ll get a 50% bump in pay or more. The best part is I don’t foresee artificial intelligence affecting plumbers all that much.
There is the “Damn the Torpedoes Full Steam Ahead!” approach, IE, Just do nothing. You can hang around your chosen field and just hope to be one of the ones who gets lucky enough to survive. If disruption happens to you, you’ll have to roll with the punches until a retraining or a career option you like comes along. I believe the right strategy for the full steam ahead approach includes playing a combination of financial offense and defense. Live like a pauper but work 80 hours a week as if you were aspiring to be a senior executive one day. I suspect the workaholics and broadly skilled will be the ones who don’t get let go until the end. You can also try an anchor yourself to your job and industry approach. That will help quite a bit. This is somewhat analogous to the approach I’ve taken. I put in long hours and I learn as much as I can. It’s also the best strategy if you’re close to the end of your career and have a great retirement plan so 3% of you can do this.
There is one universal strategy that everyone should follow and that is the strategy of knowledge. You can’t really prepare or decide on what to do next unless you have intense awareness of what’s going on in your professional world. At the very least understand what the artificial intelligence and automation tools are in your industry. Go to the conferences, search the job boards, look at what the vendors are suggesting. It may seem insane or pie-in-the-sky, but if somebody said “I’m going to turn every house into a bed-and-breakfast” before Airbnb came on the scene or “I’m going to take anyone who needs a ride and allow them to feel safe getting in a stranger’s personal car” before Uber exploded in popularity we would have thought they were nuts.
One easy way to start thinking about it is ask yourself the following question: What decisions do you make that a computer can eventually make? Artificial intelligence is all about decision making. That’s why the mechanical aspects of the trades are safer than the decision making professional class jobs. Do you make decisions about numbers or people? Computers make those decisions very well these days. If a computer made those decisions, then what would you do? If you can figure that out you’ll set the right course that brings you to smooth sailing while everyone else around you still has to navigate the AI storm!
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