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To What Extent Are Careers Threatened by Robots?

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For current graduates, not only it is difficult to find full-time jobs, but also jobs that are not precarious. The nature of work is changing accordingly to the technological progress. Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, explains that our era is starting to witness a Fourth Industrial Revolution (2016). In that sense, artificial intelligence will be transforming organisational structures through automation, creating a better scope for innovation and meeting customer needs.

This affects businesses, governments and society as a whole, especially when technology has been deeply implemented within human resources practices. To illustrate, companies invest in software tools for application screening. In fact, some big corporations screen CVs and/or cover letters using automated software as they have a large number of applicants. These tools can either be built-in-house, like Google owns, or a software service solution, like HireWand, as it saves time and money to overcome the challenge of matching profile criteria.

From historical experience, as economist Keynes stated, technological advances destroyed jobs to create new ones. Yet, this progress seems to generate less demand for work (Brynjolfsson & McAfee, 2014). To illustrate, figures show that in the 1990s the percentage of new jobs created represented almost half (4.5%) of the percentage during the 1980s (8%) – cf. p:39.

Therefore, to develop a critical understanding of the shifting nature of work, the effect of technological advances on skills will be analysed throughout this article.

All About Skills

Historically speaking, past industrial revolutions (IRs) gave workers lower control over decisions related to the way they achieve their tasks, because each IR is characterised by an innovation making jobs replaceable as they are divided into the easiest tasks, i.e. Taylorism made it easier for manufacturers to produce more, saving time and costs. Such phenomena push people to abandon low-skilled jobs, like a cashier at a supermarket, and turn to education to learn more complex skill sets.

As a matter of fact, people are more qualified than ever before: around 50% of young adults in the UK were in higher education in 2016, which translates into future employees being given a greater opportunity to contribute to the workplace. This is good news for companies which will be more performant: workers take on more stimulating occupations because they have the capacity to accept responsibilities.

With this in mind, Brougham & Haar (2017) developed a framework describing the aspects of present jobs – control, complexity and repetition – to evaluate whether technological advances, designated as STAARA (Smart, Technology, Automation, Artificial Intelligence – AI, Robotics, Algorithms), could change the nature of work. They detect that jobs that require a low ability to make decisions, less skill and are repetitive are likely to be automated, such as a fast-food worker being replaced by self-service machines. A Citigroup study in 2016 reported that there is a risk of automation in developed countries – more specifically, 57% of jobs accomplished by humans can be replaced by STAARA.

Furthermore, STAARA’s effect description goes in line with Frey and Osborne’s forecast on job computerisation (2017). Both groups of authors agree on the deskilling, but the difference lies in the types of jobs which are less susceptible to automation. They are occupations demanding creative and social skills. In other words, for example, a CEO or any organisational leader has a more complex task as they challenge uncertainty to make a successful decision. Thus, labour-intensive sectors, such as management, arts, healthcare and media jobs are in the low-risk category (Frey & Osborne, 2017) as they require originality, persuasion and the ability to care for others.

Nevertheless, education, included in the latter category, could be at risk. Notably, there has been a recent increase in Massive Online Courses (MOOCs) creating datasets that give detailed information about each student’s profile. That is to say, user interfaces have been integrated into the educational sector to offer suitable courses for students who aim at better performance and post-graduate opportunities. Moreover, despite the high complexity of a task, this substitution is still debatable: with data aiding computational progress, machines become better at managing difficult tasks or even jobs with high control and creativity. For instance, Future Advisor, a company that uses AI, processes algorithms to offer low-cost financial recommendations. Hence, data analysis will allow more adapted and effective results with little to no margin for error.

After all, as the pace of technological advances inclines, structural shifts within labour markets rise, and as a consequence, low-skilled workers are obligated to acquire social and creative skills. This view illustrates that there are both negative and positive effects of computerisation for which the outweigh is still debated among scholars. There are two scenarios that might occur: optimistic and pessimistic. For the former, rising levels of skills may persuade employers to improve working conditions further and pay better because workers contribute more; whereas for the latter, skilled people will be confined to alienating jobs and will become costs to be reduced rather than managed.

Future Considerations

The Fourth Industrial Revolution, Schwab describes, has various implications on the way people work, though the literature still has room for research to define the changes because of the uncertain and complex environment the future yields. Empirically, upcoming technological advances will demand new skills from workers while eliminating the existing ones. That will both positively and negatively affect labour markets, change employment relationships and re-define the critical role of employers.

As we live in a world where people strive for innovation and change, what will degrees offer students?

Competitive candidatures due to upgraded skills pressure young aspiring adults to find jobs that are already, or will soon be, replaced by a robot ‘friend’. It is also financially draining for some and/or for others, seen as elitist to graduate from top universities as companies somehow favour the latter throughout the application process. Should business schools focus more on providing degrees of ‘leadership’ rather than accounting?

On a macro level, organisations need to come up with new management practices and/or training decisions that match this deskilling trend and, at the same time, prioritise the interests of their stakeholders. 

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