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Future Jobs: The Times They are a Changin’

October 10, 2012


In a post entitled Robots and the Future of Manufacturing, I noted that many jobs now being done by humans are likely to be taken over by robots. I also noted that it is likely that humans and robots will be working side-by-side in the future (see my post entitled Meet Baxter — Your New Co-worker). Parag Khanna and Aaron Smith believe that students need to start preparing now to fill the positions that will be required in the future. Those positions are likely to be much different than the jobs being filled today. “In 1945, when more than 15,000 Manhattan elevator operators and maintenance workers went on strike,” write Khanna and Smith, “New York’s skyline simply shut down. Business ground to a halt for a full workweek, causing Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to desperately appeal for the strikers to return to work. Today, of course, the elevator operator is another casualty of automation, along with the likes of the professional typist and the switchboard operator.” [“Jobs of the Future,” Foreign Policy, September/October 2012] Around the turn of the 2oth century, switchboard operators were being hired so fast that it was predicted that eventually all women would be needed to be operators. Thanks to technology the opposite occurred and today virtually no women are needed as operators. Sorry Ernestine.


Despite the loss of jobs such as switchboard and elevator operators, people understand that their lives are better off because of the technologies that made those workers redundant. Khanna and Smith write, “Though fears of a robot army displacing hordes of human laborers have so far proved premature, today’s global workforce is at a moment of major upheaval (even putting aside widespread unemployment).” John Markoff agrees with Khanna and Smith that we are on the cusp of a new technological era. He reports:

“At an automation trade show last year in Chicago, Ron Potter, the director of robotics technology at an Atlanta consulting firm called Factory Automation Systems, offered attendees a spreadsheet to calculate how quickly robots would pay for themselves. In one example, a robotic manufacturing system initially cost $250,000 and replaced two machine operators, each earning $50,000 a year. Over the 15-year life of the system, the machines yielded $3.5 million in labor and productivity savings. The Obama administration says this technological shift presents a historic opportunity for the nation to stay competitive. ‘The only way we are going to maintain manufacturing in the U.S. is if we have higher productivity,’ said Tom Kalil, deputy director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.” [“Skilled Work, Without the Worker,” New York Times, 18 August 2012]

Even if that is true, you know there is going to be pushback from those losing their jobs. Khanna and Smith recommend embracing the future rather than fighting it since technological progress is unlikely to be stopped. To help tomorrow’s workforce prepare for jobs that don’t even exist today, they speculate how a few jobs are likely to change. “Many jobs we now take for granted will soon disappear,” they write, “while others will emerge that are simply unimaginable today. Here’s a look at five jobs that may be on the chopping block and what might replace them.”

Market researcher —> Predictive data analyst

“Every minute YouTube users upload 48 hours of video, Facebook users share 684,478 pieces of content, and Google receives 2 million search queries, according to the business analytics company Domo. As Big Data gets even bigger, fewer people will be needed to collect information, and more people will be needed to analyze and discover the value stored within these billions of terabytes. Some of the sexiest and best-paying jobs of the next 10 years will belong to the likes of Internet statisticians and data miners, people who don’t just crunch raw numbers but analyze their hidden patterns to shape business decisions.”

I agree completely with this prediction. A number of analysts now believe that algorithmic or targeted marketing is going to help manufacturers and retailers make better use of their resources. For more information on this subject, read my posts entitled The Disruptive Potential of Algorithmic Marketing, New Directions for Retailing, Part 2 and Algorithms and Targeted Marketing, Part 1 and Part 2. Khanna’s and Smith’s next job transformation is in the health sector.

Hospital orderly —> Medical roboticist

“In this summer’s sci-fi blockbuster Prometheus, an astronaut climbs into a fully robotic surgical pod to have an alien baby removed by cesarean section. Although extraterrestrial cross-breeding is a ways off (let’s hope), advanced medical robots are rapidly evolving to keep up with an aging global population. Japan leads the way in robot innovation to care for its growing elderly population, including rehabilitative and therapeutic robots from Honda and Toyota. Medical roboticists will be needed to design, build, and operate these intelligent devices, which will increasingly replace humans — and provide more precise care — in doctors’ offices and hospitals.”

As I noted in a previous post, two challenges are often identified as exacerbating healthcare challenges in America: rising costs and a growing shortage of general/family practice physicians. [Shortages of General Practice and Family Doctors are Impacting Emergency Health Care] Medical robots have the potential of easing both challenges. In addition, technology will be used in a number of ways in the healthcare sector beyond the use of robots. Carol Wilson, in a guest post entitled Will IBM Revolutionize Business Analytics With Watson?, noted that IBM’s Watson technology is being adapted to help oncologists diagnose and treat cancer. Khanna’s and Smith’s next job transformation is in the education sector.

Teaching assistant —> Educational technologist

“While public university systems in many countries are plagued by inadequate funding, higher education as a whole is one of the fastest-growing sectors: 170 million people were enrolled in higher ed in 2009, a 160 percent increase from 1990. And online education, once derided as correspondence classes for those who couldn’t get into a four-year college, is booming. Software coders and curriculum developers will be needed to design online courses that deliver memorable learning in a new virtual medium. On the heels of Udacity and MIT’s OpenCourseWare, new educational platforms have emerged that require the virtual curation of online, collaborative student groups, facilitating a multidirectional learning process. Rejoice! The days of tweed-jacketed professors droning on in lecture halls are nearly over.”

Khanna and Smith point to Salman Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, as a visionary in this field. Khan started his free online Academy to help students at all education levels, not just those attending college. For more information about the Khan Academy, read my post entitled Teaching Problem Solving Skills in Math and Science, Part 2. Frankly, I believe that more attention needs to be paid to education at elementary, middle, and high school levels than at the college level. If you can’t get young students interested in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, what you teach at the college level makes little impact. Khanna’s and Smith’s next job transformation is in the construction sector.

Construction foreman —> Smart engineer

“Bricks and mortar aren’t what they used to be. Construction represents more than $7 trillion of the world’s economic output, and it’s expected to grow to $12 trillion by 2020, as emerging markets bulge in China, India, Latin America, and the Middle East. And new transportation systems — from driverless cars to maglev trains — require infrastructure to be updated and reinvented. In developed countries, creaking urban centers will be retrofitted — or replaced — with new, sustainable technologies and materials. And with the development of ‘smart houses,’ already in the works from Microsoft, new types of engineers, designers, and construction workers will be needed to seamlessly integrate and install digital technology in our homes.”

I’m pleased that Khanna and Smith briefly mentioned the fact that future construction will likely involve new and sustainable materials. The materials science and technology field is likely to have a bright future. A couple of years ago I wrote a short post on some of the sustainable materials that were being developed for construction purposes (see The Future of Building Materials). Even though the construction industry remains depressed, I believe its future is bright. Khanna’s and Smith’s final job transformation is in the travel sector.

Tour guide —> Space navigator

“There’s almost nowhere you can’t get to by plane or boat these days. And with a flourishing private space race, a ride above Earth’s atmosphere soon won’t be solely for astronauts (or the ridiculously rich). The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration predicts space tourism will be a billion-dollar industry within the next 10 years. Virgin Galactic has more than 500 reservations for suborbital flights, slated to launch as soon as next year. And the space venture company Bigelow Aerospace plans to open a space hotel in 2016. It may sound like something out of an Isaac Asimov novel, but if there’s one thing we know about the future of the workforce, it’s that wherever professionals and technologists are going, sci-fi writers have already been.”

Frankly, I do believe that space tourism is going to be accessible only to the “ridiculously rich” for some time to come. Khanna’s and Smith’s larger point, however, that jobs are going to be found in areas once described only in science fiction is probably correct. Who would have guessed that animation (in the form of computer-generated images (CGI)) would have so dramatically changed the expectations and experiences of movie goers? I suspect that Khanna and Smith could have looked at jobs in almost any field and come up with examples that are going to transform dramatically in the years ahead. The only question will be whether our educational system will keep up, let alone keep ahead, of these job transformations.

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