It may be the most uniform security force ever. All the guards stand roughly 5 feet tall, weigh 98 pounds, move at no more than 3 miles per hour and wear the same shade of bright blue as they guard office buildings and warehouses. None of them take vacations, argue with co-workers or complain about their assignments.
These guards—nameless machines manufactured by Cobalt Robotics—are each armed with more than 60 sensors and eight cameras that offer 360-degree views, which can detect anomalies as varied as spilled coffee, an intruder or a fire. They can't, however, determine the severity of what they've encountered or how to address it. That task falls to a "robot specialist," who sits in Cobalt's San Mateo, Calif., headquarters monitoring the data sent by multiple machines in order to decide the correct action.
The specialists have been around only since 2017, when Cobalt began marketing the robots. The company equates the role to that of a hotel concierge, so it has hired many people with previous experience in the hospitality industry.
"They have to be friendly," says Betty Liu, Cobalt's head of people operations. She adds that specialists also need to "understand the attention to detail and the importance of privacy."
This type of partnership between humans and machines will inform jobs of the future and shape the workforce in the next industrial revolution.
Teaming with Technology
There have been numerous dystopian reports predicting that technology is going to put waves of people out of work. Late last year, noted artificial intelligence (AI) specialist and venture capitalist Kai-Fu Lee said on the television show "60 Minutes" that robots would replace 40 percent of all current jobs within the next 15 to 25 years.
Other predictions are also alarming. According to Willis Towers Watson 2019 Pathways to Digital Enablement Survey, companies say that 17 percent of work is now done through automation. That's up from 8 percent three years ago and is expected to hit 30 percent in another three years.
Optimists focus on how the interaction between humans and robots will become a blueprint for many future jobs. Cognizant's Center for the Future of Work compiled two lists with a combined 42 jobs that the think tank predicts will become realities in the next 10 years. The majority involve humans developing or managing some form of technology.
"We speculate tech will create more jobs than it destroys," says Ben Pring, vice president and director of Cognizant's Teaneck, N.J.-based center.
One of the center's predictions describes a job called "man-machine teaming manager," which is similar to Cobalt's robot specialist.
The report also describes the work of "algorithm-bias auditors," who will ensure that the artificial intelligence a company uses in, for example, sales analysis and recruitment is fair, legal and ethical. "Artificial-intelligence business development manager" will involve individuals who market a company's AI services.
An especially crucial new role may be the "machine-risk officer," who will step in should a machine malfunction and hurt employees and/or customers.
As computers take on more tasks, human oversight will become increasingly important, says Ravin Jesuthasan, a managing director at Willis Towers Watson.
"I think that will be a huge area of growth," he says.
The challenge for companies is to find talent with the skills and imagination to step into these anticipated roles. It won't be easy, as technology and skills will become obsolete more and more quickly.
Employers will therefore seek individuals with a high level of soft skills, such as the ability to show empathy, problem-solve, communicate, negotiate and learn. These attributes are now referred to by some experts as "power skills."
"The most critical skill in this industrial revolution is 'learnability,' " says Jesuthasan. "I may not know how the business will change. I need a person with the capacity to retool."
Sometimes "learnability" is an easy trait to spot. For example, people who have successfully reinvented themselves multiple times in their career would likely possess this capability. When it isn't as obvious, employers often use a combination of games and personality tests to discern a person's ability to master new skills.
Others are taking a more low-tech approach. To identify candidates who rank highly in aspiration and agility, Ellyn Shook, chief leadership and human resources officer at consulting firm Accenture, asks applicants, "When was the last time you learned to do something new?" She follows up with questions regarding how the new skill was acquired. "What I want to know is if the person has learning agility."
Adapt or Die
Shook says hiring for skill sets has lost its relevance. "When the shelf life of skills was longer, you could hire for specific skills and get a long-term return on that investment that would continue to add value to the organization," she says.
That just isn't the case anymore. Accenture has reskilled more than 300,000 of its workers and, in the process, invented completely new jobs as part of the Dublin-based consulting firm's commitment to providing its clients with the best services. For example, Accenture now has "automation architects," who help employees determine which of their duties can be computerized. Automating tasks frees up workers' time for other projects that demand more critical thinking.
Other employees have been retrained for existing roles. Within 18 months, one worker in mortgage processing became a technologist who tests clients' energy systems.
Most of those who have been retrained have learned technical skills, though tens of thousands have been taught other jobs such as how to lead design-thinking projects. These leaders have a prescribed toolkit they use to solve problems.
Matthew Schuyler, chief human resources officer at Hilton Worldwide Holdings, agrees that adaptation will become a key competency. "Humans adapt with proper context," he says. Unfortunately, company leaders often fail to explain why a change is needed and where the company is headed.
Hilton has been investing heavily in technology for its human resources department, including AI tools that review resumes. However, the organization wasn't looking to cut staff; instead, it wanted to give HR more time to check references and create more-effective onboarding programs for new employees—activities that can't be handled by a computer.
The Next Wave
There are some industries in which the merging of technology and human skills is more likely to result in completely new jobs because of changing demographics, politics, social issues and technology. Such fields include biotech, security, virtual reality and the environment, according to Pring.
The #MeToo movement and Millennials' desire to work for socially responsible companies are expected to lead to the creation of new positions focused on ethics and fairness.
Pring says it's important for job seekers to be aware of such trends as they choose employers.
He compares employment to surfing, with the individual and his or her skills as the surfboard and the industry as the wave.
"It isn't about the board; it's about the wave," he says. "Put your board on the right wave, and you'll do well."
The transformative powers of technology have already helped professionals in many industries increase their proficiency. Consider the technological advances in medicine, for example. Robotic technology helps surgeons perform complex procedures with more precision than they could achieve manually. Tiny machines like pacemakers can keep people alive, and computerized records have saved medical staff time while improving information accuracy. Meanwhile, the ability to find patterns and outliers in data with lightning speed using machines powered by artificial intelligence has shown great promise in better diagnosing disease. But nobody wants to get terrible medical news from a robot. Machines are still a long way from showing empathy, creativity or common sense and may never reach such heights—and humans are generally social and crave meaningful interaction. So even if machines could show compassion, it’s tough to imagine humans pouring their hearts out to martini-mixing robots after a long day. And self-playing pianos have been around since the early 1900s, though “Casablanca” may never have become a classic if a motorized instrument—instead of Sam—played “As Time Goes By” to Rick and Ilsa.
Here are some jobs that should withstand the onslaught of technology:
- Health care professionals, such as doctors, nurses and therapists.
- Tradespeople, such as carpenters and plumbers.
- Security personnel, such as police officers and firefighters.
- Hospitality workers, such as waitresses and bartenders.
- Real estate developers and agents.
- Elder care and child care workers.
Theresa Agovino is the workplace editor for SHRM.
SHRM provides resources to help companies prepare for future business challenges that will affect the workplace.
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