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Discover The Future of Work

Back in 2004, fresh out of university and the proud owner of a distinctly average philosophy degree, I had precisely no idea what to do with my career. Suddenly thrust into the real world, there were bills to pay and an expensive London nightlife to be lived, so getting a job seemed unavoidable. Through some old school friends, I ended up working at a remortgaging company, making tea, filing, taking phone calls, making more tea and endlessly plugging data into spreadsheets. At the time, this was a ploy; do something mundane and mindless while I figured out what I really wanted to do, but the truth is that this was an important foundation in my career. Amongst many other things, it taught me how to manage my time, communicate with my peers and managers, navigate office politics and understand systems and processes.

The rise of automation has got me thinking about the old times recently, and the fact that jobs like my first likely won’t exist in the not so distant future. As more and more companies undergo digital transformation projects, those files I used to sift through in a cabinet will be stored digitally, indexed and easily accessible to those who need them. Software robots will enter data from digitised forms into spreadsheets and AI assistants will help confused customers navigate their way through processes. Away from desk workers, fast food is being automated by way of the culinary robot Flippy and Yanu might just be serving the drinks of the future whilst small talking with clients at the bar. Yes, digital transformation and automation will create new jobs for people but will they be their first jobs?

There’s no easy answer to this. Undoubtedly, technology is changing the work we do more quickly than it has done in the past and this affects both people already in employment and those entering the market. But whereas reskilling and training can be made available by employers for those already working, it is incumbent on governments and educational institutions to ensure that young people coming into the market have the right skills. Initiatives like the Institutes of Technology, where employers are partnering with colleges and universities to help students learn the right skills are a great start, but what about those students who have Arts degrees, like I had? It’s not possible for everyone to be STEM trained and neither, I would argue, is it good for business.

Our Work Ahead survey identified analytical and communication skills as the most important to have as we move ahead into digitized businesses. These are abundant in graduates with Arts degrees and it is healthy to have not only a diverse workforce in terms of their gender, race and sexuality, but also in their thinking and backgrounds. When employing from graduate programmes, organisations should be careful to not be blinkered towards STEM graduates only and consider those who have skills nurtured through other courses.

With all this talk of universities and colleges, education and automation, it is pertinent to also remember that many do not stay in education after school, choosing to go straight into employment or learning a trade. University or college may not be right for them, or they may not be fortunate enough to have the means to pay for it. Either way, the market they enter into is still being affected by technology. The concern is that the gap between those that can enter into schemes that give them the skills for the future of work and those that cannot will widen, increasing an already worrying distance between higher and lower earners. As such, helping everyone to get into positions where they can learn both how to work and what their career should be is a vital consideration going forward

Learning a trade such as plumbing, carpentry or construction is arguably more protected from the rise of technology than other positions. Jobs humans can do in these spaces are extremely difficult for robotics to replicate, as much as some may try. Dare I say it, they can also be more fulfilling than knowledge work, with tangible and functional creations existing at the end of a job. This can help us to identify those attributes that should be nurtured and encouraged in young people. Craft work, communication, teaching and coaching, writing. All of these things and many more rely on specifically human characteristics and create outputs that lead to both business success and employee satisfaction. As machines do more of what they do best and humans do the same, more focus in every industry and business should be put on creating an environment that is welcoming and encouraging for those who do not have skills yet but will quickly learn.

I would argue that a lot of positions that young people are employed into consist of work that more experienced colleagues believe they don’t need to be doing, or is “beneath” them. As this work is automated away, a change in attitude is required to help to start careers. Focus must be put on starter positions that combine training and skilling up with shadowing of more experienced staff. First jobs need to be planned out and created, rather than coming into existence through short term necessity. It only makes good business sense as the skills for work become more specific; if you can tap into a new talent pool that your competitors are not, and skill them up to meet your specific needs, then this stands as a great advantage.

Automation and technology in general will change work forever, and it is imperative that we not only have the skills for but also create the first jobs of the future.