Work that uses basic digital skills is more likely to disappear than jobs that rely on decision-making, judgment and the ability to create digital content

The question of how we can best deal with the swiftly changing face of the workforce is a challenge for policy-makers, chief executives, educators — and, of course, workers. You only have to go into a supermarket and see that the cashier has been replaced by a self-service checkout machine to be reminded of the scale and scope of change. It’s no wonder that people feel nervous about their job prospects.

There is also great skepticism about attempts to predict the future. And it’s true that in the past, predictions haven’t always been accurate. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the US predicted in the late 1980s that the category “social and human service assistants” would grow by 45 percent between 1988 and 2000; in fact it grew by 141 percent. And changes in welfare laws were not predicted, which caused a significant underestimate of the need for job training for poor, elderly, disabled or mentally ill people.

Still, with very few exceptions, these economists predicted correctly which occupations would grow and which would shrink, even if they got the speed or level of growth wrong. And these forecasts provided targets for policy-makers to work with when implementing training schemes and other programs, even if they needed to adjust course as things changed.

At Nesta, the UK’s innovation foundation, we believe that more accurate predictions can lead to better policy-making, which protects the most vulnerable, and give governments and the public a greater opportunity to define the sort of future they want. More than that, we believe that new forms of big-data collection can predict more about the workforce than ever before, improving accuracy and democratizing who has access to information about the job market.

The trend that gets the most airtime at the moment is automation — but it isn’t the only development likely to change the UK’s (or any country’s) workforce over the next 10 years. Other trends, sometimes forgotten amid the shock headlines, are also going to cause shifts. For example, an aging population is likely to lead to an increased need for caregivers, and the move away from reliance on fossil fuels and toward a green economy requires new skills, too, in fields such as engineering, architecture and biophysics.

In 2017, Nesta conducted research in partnership with Pearson, the educational publisher, which took into account factors other than automation — including globalization, changing demographics, urbanization and the green economy — using a combination of analysis of trends, machine learning and expert input. We found that around one-tenth of the workforce in the UK is in occupations that are likely to grow by 2030, and around one-fifth is in occupations that will likely shrink.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, we found that many of the fields likely to experience a fall in employment are low- or medium-skilled. On the other hand, creative, digital, design and engineering occupations have bright outlooks and are strongly complemented by digital technology. Education, health care and occupations in the wider public sector are also likely to grow. Some low-skilled jobs, in fields like construction and agriculture, are less likely to suffer poor outcomes than has been assumed in the past.

But job titles and even sectors can only tell us so much: A job title might well stay the same while the skills needed to do the work could shift fundamentally. So we went beyond titles, using our analysis of jobs to understand what underlying skills might best prepare us for the future. Here we found evidence of a group of softer, cognitive skills that are also likely to “robot-proof” existing jobs: judgment and decision-making, fluency of ideas, complex problem solving and systems analysis.

Even in the age of Google, hard knowledge will still be important. But these cognitive skills will be increasingly essential complements to that knowledge.

One concern we have is that this shift is likely to disadvantage, even more than at the present, young people who do not develop these broader skills and capabilities at school. In the UK, there are often fewer opportunities for students in more disadvantaged communities to take part in extra-curricular learning, which is just one way that collaboration, creativity, confidence or resilience can be developed. This is one reason for education systems worldwide to throw out the tired “knowledge vs. skills” debate and to start thinking about how both can be developed together.

Of course, it isn’t only soft skills that are important when it comes to preparing the workforce of the future. A common government response to projected shifts in the workforce has been to invest in digital skills, which are, according to UNESCO, “a range of abilities to use digital devices, communication applications and networks to access and manage information.” Such investment is not a bad thing in itself — but Nesta’s big-data analysis shows that it isn’t enough.

Nesta looked at 41 million job ads to identify the digital skills needed in jobs most likely to grow by 2030 and those needed in the jobs most likely to disappear. We looked at both skills in using specific software programs and general skills in areas like coding and animation.

We found that across the labour market, the disappearing jobs are actually more likely to need a digital skill than those that are most likely to grow. This is because there are jobs that need digital skills that are just one step away from being automated: For example, a human job using a computerized system in a storage facility will probably be eliminated by more advanced technology over the next few years. The fact that the work is partly digitized today lays the groundwork for the switch to automation tomorrow. On the other hand, there are jobs with buoyant prospects that don’t need many digital skills at the moment — including teachers and chefs.

Where digital skills are needed, they are noticeably different in jobs likely to grow than in jobs likely to decline. What sets apart “future-proof” digital skills is their use in non-routine tasks, problem solving and creation of digital content. Jobs that use skills like animation and multimedia production and software for tasks like design engineering are those likely to grow. Jobs that use skills like invoice processing and data input are more likely to decline.

Again, what we find isn’t a simple projection of a high-tech future. It is — potentially — a future where people can do meaningful and uniquely human jobs alongside the machines. These are jobs requiring caring skills (to help support an aging population), problem solving, group work. Just knowing how to use a spreadsheet is unlikely to be enough in 2030 — you will need to be able to be creative with it, or even to shape the software that makes it. And we as policy researchers need to make sure governments aren’t distracted by the technology and miss this big picture: It is these very human skills that separate us from the robots.

This article is part of the Preparing Citizens for the Future of Work special feature.

Photo: Shutterstock, by tomertu

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