Education and employment and the response to automation

As the debate about the potential impact of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation continues, we are getting used to opposing predictions: either doom-laden predictions of mass unemployment or more positive predictions of a new wave of jobs being created.

Although there are no definitive answers yet, automation will clearly have a significant impact on tasks, roles, jobs and employment.

Right now, the world is legitimately clueless about five key factors:
  • • How far and how deep these technologies will actually penetrate over the next five to 20 years;

  • • The scale of opportunities that will be generated in the new sectors and businesses that might emerge;

  • • How the nature of work, roles, jobs and workplaces might evolve over time;

  • • How governments, businesses and individuals might respond and the potential for innovative solutions to emerge; and

  • • What the net impact might be on employment and economic prospects for the individual.
Now is the time to be thinking the unthinkable about preparing students and the current workforce for an uncertain future; creating new jobs and businesses; supporting the unemployed in a fair, dignified and straightforward manner that supports their search for opportunities; and funding the transitions from this economy to future ones.

The key to all of this is education.

The big picture

It’s becoming abundantly clear that at the national, business and individual level, what will determine our ability to survive and thrive in a rapidly evolving landscape are our levels of education and big picture awareness.

Our capacity to navigate a turbulent landscape will be driven by a number of factors: our understanding of how the world is changing; our digital literacy; our capacity to think, reason and solve problems; our ability to learn new skills and approaches quickly; and our mastery of life skills such as collaboration, scenario thinking, coping with uncertainty and handling complexity.

These skills will help us move from role to role in a world where job tenures are shortening but lifespans could be increasing. They will also help us start our own businesses and take greater responsibility for our own livelihoods. This is something that could become an increasing priority as medium to large organisations slim down their workforces through competitive pressures and automation.

Policy experiments

We can see a growing onus on small to medium enterprises to provide the bulk of employment across the economy. Hence, some of the key policy experiments we are advocating are outlined below.
  • Future Immersion Intensives – It is now common for business executives to attend immersive study tours to meet new ventures in emerging sectors or take part in transformative one- to two-week courses at institutions like Singularity University. These are designed to accelerate ‘mindset change’ in these organisations by providing a crash course in the ideas shaping the future and the technologies that might deliver them.

    A similar, lower-cost, society-wide option would be to create a range of such programmes, ranging in length from a weekend to a month. They would combine business visits, lectures, projects and discussions with innovators, change agents and entrepreneurs.

    The programmes would be aimed at those in work, the unemployed, students, parents, teachers and those who realise their business has to change. The faculty could be drawn from business, academia and those in the local community who are retired or unemployed but have a desire to serve and grow at the same time.

  • Acknowledging the Shift to a Graduate Workforce – Automation seems highly likely to reduce the number of lower and mid-level skilled jobs in the economy. We can foresee a scenario where, within five to 10 years, 80% of the new jobs created will require a graduate-level education or equivalent. This means a cornerstone of any employment policy has to be to ensure that we are readjusting the skills and knowledge base at every level.

    In particular, this means encouraging and incentivising adults to enter into continuing education while still in employment. Equally it means confidence-building programmes for the unemployed, basic literacy support for those who have been left behind and a massive expansion of access schemes to allow those with few or no formal qualifications to transition into higher education.

  • Expanding Access – Funding will always be an issue, but the cost of inaction and a poorly educated workforce could far outweigh a large-scale expansion in provision.

    This could be delivered in innovative ways – including encouraging firms to sponsor local education programmes either through direct funding, providing tutors or allowing the use of their unused meeting and training room facilities during the day, in the evenings and at weekends. Vacant facilities in schools, colleges and universities could also be used in the same way.

    A key part of the learning agenda here would be to take people into the new and emerging businesses to help them understand the changing nature of work and workplaces and learn about the skills they require now and in the emerging future. Support systems could be provided for communities to self-organise education and skills programmes, sourcing tutors locally and using attendee ratings and feedback to determine who best serves the needs of local communities.

    Clearly, pump-priming might be required for areas where no such local tutoring talent exists. The key is to try a range of experiments, share the experiences, and scale the best practice models for different types and sizes of local community.

  • Abolishing Student Debt and Tuition Fees – In the United Kingdom, students are typically finishing higher education with debts of £30,000 to £60,000 (US$39,300 to US$79,000) and, in many cases, poor job prospects and relatively low morale. This is the very group that needs to be inspired to create new ideas, services and businesses for a changing world.

    Hence a cancellation of student debt and of individually paid tuition fees might help make it more attractive to go into higher education – especially if meaningful student grants were reintroduced.

  • Training and Education Salaries – For those who are made redundant or are struggling to find work in their current sector, an option might be to retrain for a new career or sector. Here, a government-funded salary could be payable for the duration of a training programme or degree course.

  • Associations and Guilds with Training Salaries – To help deliver on the above retraining requirements, new salaried models of vocational training could be developed by evolving existing professional bodies and creating new ones. Their primary purpose would be to help develop the skills and personal competencies required for the new world of work.

    These programmes would combine work-specific training, workplace placements and the development of general work, business and social skills. A training salary would be paid throughout the retraining period to take away the associated stress of taking time out to learn new skills.

  • Incentivising Learning – Continuing professional development might have to become compulsory or be incentivised through the tax system to encourage individuals to keep acquiring skills to help them move from job to job.

    Alongside reskilling the nation and changing mindsets, a parallel process is required to help stimulate new jobs and the businesses and industry sectors that will provide them.
In a world in transition these are just a few of the many ideas we have been exploring to address the challenges we face. Right now there are no answers. However, these are ideas that merit detailed investigation and require experiments to be undertaken to see how we can educate and reskill society and create new job opportunities.

Rohit Talwar, Steve Wells, Alexandra Whittington, April Koury and Helena Calle are from Fast Future, a professional foresight firm specialising in delivering keynote speeches, executive education, research and consulting on the emerging future. The latest books from Fast Future are: Beyond Genuine Stupidity: Ensuring AI serves humanity and The Future Reinvented: Reimagining life, society, and business. And their forthcoming book is 500 Futures.