Why we need to protect our earning potential from robot automation

Robots are on the rise but there are steps you can take now to future-proof your income

Last month, one leading futurologist predicted that the global robot population, already more than 57 million, will outnumber humans by 2048, and that’s a conservative estimate. Future-proofing your income is more important now than ever.

Automation is taking the workforce by storm and naturally human workers are worried their jobs will be replaced by robots. Employer services provider ADP recently surveyed 1,300 working adults and found that a third believe their job will be automated within the next 10 years.

Yet half of those said their employer was not helping them to reskill. It’s understandably something that worries younger staff in particular as they will exist for longer in this evolving jobs market. The survey found that 46 per cent of respondents aged between 16 and 35 were concerned that the rise of the robots might push them out of their current role in the next decade.

“Automation may seem like an issue for future generations,” says Jeff Phipps, managing director of ADP. “But our findings show that machines could replace thousands of employees in as little as five years.

“Artificial intelligence and robotics are progressing at such a pace that machines will soon have the capability to do the job of humans in a whole range of professions and industries. And while this might be good for efficiency and productivity, it could leave thousands facing redundancy and change the face of the workplace forever.”

But Phipps remains optimistic that if people focus on training and work to reskill now, they can protect their future earning potential from the bots.

“More robots in the workplace won’t mean all humans become obsolete, as new and maybe better jobs will be created, while other roles will change considerably. By starting to upskill and retrain workers now, employers can ensure they and their employees are as ready as possible to work side by side with the machines.”

Not everyone thinks vast change is coming. Stephen Bevan, head of HR research development at the Institute for Employment Studies, says: “The job destroying impact of automation has been overstated, not for the first time. Fewer than 10 per cent of jobs are at risk and many different and new jobs will be created. Automation and technology are having more impact on where, when and how we work than on the numbers of jobs.

“The roles most at risk are those which are most routine and whose tasks and procedures are easy to ‘bake’ into algorithms, [such as] insurance claims and legal procedures.”

Valerie Wasch of the tech recruitment firm Montreal Associates says it’s vital for employees to take steps now to future-proof their earning potential.

She says: “Robots and machines will not learn how to do our jobs per se. Instead, they will learn to do the daily tasks within our jobs quickly and more efficiently. Unfortunately, this means that jobs that were once done by a team of five could be condensed to one person once the repetitive elements are automated. Ultimately, it ends with the same result – but it’s an important distinction.

“With automation a foregone conclusion, the advice is the same as always. Diversify your skills base, undertake continuous professional development (CPD) regularly, and position yourself with an employer that is happy for this to take place under their banner (all the best employers are). Further than this, AI only really functions with repetitive tasks. The future will see a huge increase in demand for human-to-human roles, creative industries, and of course, IT.”

Wasch is clear that workers need to either develop the skills that allow them to master the machines or move into creative sectors where it seems unlikely technology can follow.

“In short, learn programming,” she says bluntly. “Automation is software, made by humans, that follows pre-programmed rules. It needs human interaction and guidance to function. The greatest earning potential always comes from niche roles, and with automation a foregone conclusion, it’s a logical career path to take.

“If young workers have skills in programming, they will be able to not only understand how machines and robots work but also to improve on them.

“New positions will arise to adapt to the shifting landscape and many of those jobs will be filled by people with transferable skills. We are already seeing a huge increase in the demand for data scientists, data engineers and developers in addition to machine learning engineers. Areas like encryption, authentication and security have been growing at an exponential rate in the last two years, and demand for cyber security specialists is increasing in tandem.”

Kirstie Mackey, director of LifeSkills at Barclays UK, says there are particular skills younger workers need to concentrate on.

“To seize the opportunities of a future workplace where automation is the norm, young people need to build their most ‘human’ skills. We don’t know exactly what the next decade’s jobs will look like yet but we know that future-focused employability skills like proactivity, problem solving and creativity will be vital.

“Building these characteristics will allow young people to compete in automated industries, move between sectors and jobs and adapt with a constantly changing workplace and a career path that is likely to look more like a web than a ladder.

“One of the early ways that young people can do this is getting comfortable with lifelong learning and networking with potential employers. Research shows that this can help them protect their earning power even in the short term.

Wasch adds: “One of the most effective ways to secure earning potential in the future is to find or invent a role that relies on creativity – you can’t program it, and it’s a future-proof industry.”

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