Can you robot-proof your career? 47% of workers may be at risk

While the threat of a zombie apocalypse is a theme frequently revisited on TV and in the movies, in real-life more people are worried by a potential robot apocalypse threatening to swallow entire industries whole.

In 2013, Oxford University released a study called “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?” by Dr. Michael A. Osborne. The duo analyzed the susceptibility of over 700 different careers to automatization and estimated that 47% of jobs in the US are “at risk” of being automated in the next 20 years.

Along those lines, last summer, Scott Latham, Ph.D. and Beth Humberd– both professors at Manning School of Business at UMass Lowell, co-authored an article for MIT Sloan Management Review titled “Four Ways Jobs Will Respond to Automation.” In an attempt to assess the threat automation poses for specific careers, the two coded 50 professions according to the “type of value jobholders delivered and the skills they used to deliver it.” The results were surprising. Instead of more blue-collar careers becoming obsolete, their research seems to suggest that “a plumber may see less disruption than a legal professional.”

Latham explained their theory to Ladders.

It’s a value proposition

Latham said “Understanding the value that you provide is crucial.” For instance, “If the value is what you do internally, if you’re a salesperson, then the relationship you have with the customer is of value.” Latham explained “Very few people provide the value of what they do. An accountant might say I do the books. But there’s more, you do the books. You understand the process and how it affects the individual or the business.”

Latham referenced legendary Harvard Business School marketing professor Theodore Levitt who famously said, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!” They’re not really interested in the item as much as getting a job done or filling a specific need. Latham believes this analogous to value. “Whether you paint the walls or do the books, what’s the inherent value in what you do?”

Latham challenges you to ask yourself the following questions:

  1. How standard is the value of what you create? Latham references the pharmacy process where automation might prove superior on some level, since accuracy is the gold standard and let’s face it, “A robot can do it better.” He also offers an example of a radiologist, “Their work is very standard pattern recognition. If a robot or some sort of artificial intelligence can deliver the value and do it cheaper and more accurately- you’re in trouble.” Possibly. But since life brings with it all kinds of fluctuations and nuance, it’s not a definitive.
  2. Do you really need retraining? Latham says “If you come to the point in time when you realize your job is in danger, you might also hear that you need to go back to school for additional training.” He explains that’s not necessarily a great idea since “If you send someone back to school mid-career it’s not viable, it’s possible that they come out and their career is dated.” Instead, it might be time to rethink the value you give to your employer and clients and perhaps work on your other existing skills instead. Latham believes there’s a lot of misguided advice as well. “Stop telling kids to learn how to code, because the second generation of artificial intelligence will code better than them. If you tell a kid to code and the next thing is better, you’ve wasted their potential.”

So, should you be sitting around doing nothing waiting for the robots take over the world? Not quite. Instead, consider the fact that many careers might benefit from finely tuned automation – Latham cites engineering as a career likely to “benefit tremendously” from a more automated workspace.

The upside of that is that according to Latham, there will be a new “creative economy” that consists of “writing and photography for instance, which aren’t standard in approach and have a lot of ambiguity.”

It’s all happened before, from the invention of the wheel to the Industrial Revolution, as things become more automated some careers are destroyed, while others enjoy a renaissance of sorts. “If something can be standardized, it’s going to be automated,” Latham said. “Is there any ambiguity? Then they’ll be just fine.”

He offers the example of classic TV sitcom Laverne and Shirley in which the two main characters worked as bottle-cappers at a fictitious beer factory. If set in more modern times, Latham muses “There would be no Laverne and Shirley today. It would be Robot A and Robot B.”