Wherever I go to talk about or listen to people share their visions for the Internet of Things (IoT), there has been a tendency to worry about its impact on jobs. The fear of automation, driven by big data, AI and advanced robotics, is especially worrying in a country where youth unemployment runs higher than 50%.
What hope is there for learners today, pessimists cry, if the few job opportunities they have now will be gone by tomorrow?
Personally, I take a more optimistic approach. Yes, there are concerns that the world’s largest tech companies are a historical anomaly, amassing great wealth without requiring large workforces, but I believe they are the exception, not the rule. The rest of the world will remain subject to the historical truism that innovation drives demand for more workers, rather than making them redundant.
During the second industrial revolution, the age of mass production, artisan trades – such as shoemaking, pot throwing, glass blowing – were threatened by the new, more efficient factory process. Ultimately, however, mass production created a virtuous circle – fewer people were needed to produce one pot, but by increasing productivity and driving down prices, the demand for crockery grew. The result? More factories employing more people than ever practised as artisans.
We saw similar things happening in the third industrial revolution of recent memory: desktop computers eliminated the need for typing pools, but the growth in higher skilled knowledge worker jobs provided ample opportunities for replacement employment.
Today, in the fourth industrial revolution, there are three key forces at work. Firstly, the danger of automation is likely to have been over-hyped. In recent weeks no less a figure than Elon Musk admitted that he’d overestimated the potential for replacing humans on the assembly line. Tesla has repeatedly failed to meet production targets for its electric vehicles, and as a result changes are underway on the factory floor.
“Excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake,” Musk said, “To be precise, my mistake. Humans are underrated.”
The second force which we should capitalise on are the new jobs which are evolving. There is massive, unfulfilled demand for network engineers, cybersecurity specialists in a wide variety of specialist fields, application developers, data scientists and more. Globally and locally, we are simply not training enough people for these new roles, and until we make fundamental changes to the way we prepare learners we will continue to struggle to fill the gap.
Today, we are over-reliant on the tertiary education system for engineers. Universities do a fantastic job with basic skills and research, but institutionally it’s impossible for them to keep up with the evolving demands of the workplace. We need corporate and academic bodies to build more – and more available – short courses so that people can develop skills on the job. We need to understand how to accredit new positions in the fields of security and IoT engineering, in the same way that vendors have developed their certification schemes for network engineers.
Underpinning those changes, as an industry we should be engaging with basic education providers as well. Coding and robotics should be part of the school syllabus, but most importantly we need a generation of learners who can think critically and creatively and are dedicated to the principles of lifelong learning. We have a fair idea of the skills that are in demand tomorrow, but 10 years’ down the line is anyone’s guess.
And finally, the third force at work is that all of these new technologies can be viewed as augmenting human capacity, not replacing it. Improving automation and analytics in the cab of a train doesn’t mean there will be no drivers, it means drivers will require a new set of skills. IoT sensors that enable predictive maintenance don’t replace skilled mechanics, they just make them more efficient.
It’s vitally important that, as an industry, we don’t just understand these issues at the level of strategic management. We must do more to engage with workers and communicate an inclusive vision of the future, and highlight success stories where new technology is driving employment. People’s fears are genuine, and if left unaddressed, dangerous. Those of us on the cutting edge of technology must do more to explain its benefits.