Transformation or termination: The issues facing tomorrow's workforce

Being adaptable, open to change and enthusiastic about learning will ensure professionals still have jobs


If forecasts are correct, automation will affect workers in fundamentally different ways depending on how prepared they are for what lies ahead. Forrester predicts that cognitive technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and automation will eliminate 16% of US jobs by 2025. At the same time, the equivalent of 9% will be created as the result of new technologies. This will require human ingenuity, which for now remains impossible to replicate. The question for today's workforce is how to be part of the transformation.

No matter the field, day-to-day jobs and the required skills to fulfill them will undergo an unprecedented transformation. The steps professionals take now to develop new skills and become adept at new technologies will determine whether their careers advance and flourish or whether they will be sidelined by automation.

To prepare for this new reality, professionals will need to embrace continuous learning, adapt to new technologies and sharpen soft skills that will never be fully automated. Technology skills and tools will be core to professional livelihoods, and the speed at which those skills are put to use will lead to new opportunities for professionals and businesses alike. Being adaptable, open to change and enthusiastic about learning will ensure professionals still have jobs – and fulfilling jobs at that.

Augment yourself with technology and learning

Whether it's taking over redundant tasks or processing vast troves of data that humans can't reasonably manage themselves, machines stand to make life easier for professionals who adapt to them. ML and AI will affect every industry, so even professionals outside of the tech world will need to become tech savvy.

For those who still have trepidation about learning new technologies, it's time to start experimenting. Taking the time to learn and use different applications such as Google Drive, conferencing programs and productivity software is a great place to start. Begin with technologies most relevant to your profession and branch out from there. Just as learning a third language becomes easier once you've learned your second, new programs and apps become easier to learn once you've familiarized yourself with a handful of existing ones.

Of course, once you've grown comfortable with one application, another will emerge that you'll need to learn as well. Staying ahead of the next wave of innovations won't typically involve structured coursework – technology often moves too quickly. Instead, keep an eye out for information about the latest solutions for your field, conduct independent research and share the information you find with colleagues. This demonstrates the sort of initiative – a uniquely human trait – that companies will always value.

Sharpen other skills that are uniquely human

ML and AI will not reach their full potential without creative and resourceful humans developing software, applications and strategies for their deployment. According to the World Economic Forum's Future of Jobs Report, creativity, critical thinking, persuasion and negotiation are among the top traits that employers deem more valuable than ever. Simply put, creative professionals who excel at problem solving and aren't afraid to experiment, test new ideas and evaluate results will always be valued by employers.

People will always remain at the heart of successful data analysis. Companies now have access to vast amounts of data, driving nearly every business decision. But the potential of data cannot be fully realized without human scrutiny. Employers will need workers who excel at creating new ways to visualize the information, interpret its meaning and turn those findings into actionable business advantage.

Humans are also impossible to beat when it comes to effective communication and persuasion. Though chatbots and voice-recognition technologies now handle many frontline operations such as fielding customer inquiries, machines are unlikely to replace humans when it comes to more nuanced areas such as sales negotiations, team management and client services. Honing these skills is key to maintaining a competitive edge in the workplace.

Genuine empathy is also an irreplaceable quality. Ensuring consistently excellent customer experience requires a deep understanding of who the end users are and what they truly value in a product or service. In addition, cultural awareness – which requires a nuanced sensibility only possessed by humans – will become even more important as companies expand to international markets.

Shape your career for constant change

As with any other unpredictable event, the only thing we can control about the onslaught of new technologies is how we respond to them. As Professor Rod McNaughton, deputy dean of the University of Auckland Business School said in a Newsroom article, "The job requirements of tomorrow are unknowable, so people should stop thinking in terms of job-specific skills, and instead foster foundational skills that enable resilience and a fast, positive response to change."

In order to prepare for those changes and grow into the roles driven by new technologies, professionals will need to embrace education as a lifelong pursuit – not simply an endeavor that ends in their 20s. In fact, a McKinsey report on the future of work predicts that mid-career retraining will become ever more important as the skillsets change that are needed for a successful career.

Opportunities for professional development are evolving as well. Continuing education no longer means necessarily earning a master's degree or enrolling in a certification program. It can be as simple as reading up on the best practices for how to present to a company's leadership team or mastering certain mission-critical software tools. The ability to quickly and effectively acquire and use new skills is key.

With these skills, workers can move beyond adopting technologies to help them in their current roles and begin training the machines that will eventually replace them. Figuring out how technology can take over some of the tasks we perform today will provide us with the skills we need to stay relevant. In the end, professionals who fearlessly embrace new technologies and hone the skills that no machine can duplicate will remain indispensable no matter what the future holds.

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