Reskilling in an age of automation

As automation accelerates changes in the workforce, could displaced workers be the answer to the STEM talent shortage?

Close up of a robotic arm detailing a microchip

Automation is threatening the jobs of millions of employees, as economic forces accelerate the use of artificial intelligence and robotics in the workplace. However, this is an opportunity to address the STEM workforce gaps. Indeed, displaced workers shouldn’t be disregarded. Instead, they should be retrained, and helped to move into jobs that technology is creating.

Even before the pandemic, estimates from Carl Frey and Michael Osborne at the University of Oxford foretold that 47% of US jobs were at risk from automation, underscoring the risk of widespread unemployment as machines displace workers. Covid lockdowns and travel restrictions accelerated that process in warehouses, factories and even restaurants.

This delivered a double whammy for low-paid workers in sectors such as retail and hospitality, the industries that were already at the highest risk of automation and forced to shut down throughout the pandemic. As we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, experts are warning that many of the jobs put on hold during the past two years are unlikely to return because of permanent changes to consumer preferences.

Severe labour shortages

Now, persistent tightness in labour markets and rising wages for workers have created the potential to spur a new round of automation, as employers innovate to combat severe labour shortages. Low-skilled workers may need to retrain. While there are fewer menial jobs, there is increasing demand for higher-skilled roles as technology creates new jobs that demand specialized skills and knowledge.

“We are currently experiencing one of the hottest job markets in history, with widespread worker shortages. However, I think it is true that the coronavirus has set us on a path of accelerated automation.”

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that occupations in the STEM fields are expected to grow 8% by 2029, compared with 3.7% for all occupations. For employers, the priority in the short term should be making training available to those affected by automation.

“We are currently experiencing one of the hottest job markets in history, with widespread worker shortages. However, I think it is true that the coronavirus has set us on a path of accelerated automation,” says Anton Korinek, a professor in the Department of Economics and the Darden School of Business of the University of Virginia and a Rubenstein Fellow at Brookings.

“The big problem with the wave of automation of the past few decades has been that the new jobs were on average worse than the displaced old jobs, so many workers lost out as a result of automation. I am concerned that AI may continue and accelerate that trend.”

Destiny in your hands

He says the main thing companies can do is ensure the rewards of new technologies are evenly shared. “There will be situations when there are really large productivity gains from new technologies, but companies also have a social responsibility to their workers, and they may want to do their best to find new roles for displaced workers and train them and share some of their productivity gains.”

“The first thing to do is get people to take control of their own destiny, so they don’t just manage their own learning but actually direct it."

Rohit Talwar, a futurist, author and CEO of Fast Future, advises employers to take a bottom-up rather than top-down approach to upskilling workers who are vulnerable to automation. “The first thing to do is get people to take control of their own destiny, so they don’t just manage their own learning but actually direct it. Employees should be thinking about what skills do I need to learn? People need to be up to speed with what’s going on in their industry or role.”

He says the jobs which are most at risk of automation in the near term are those which are low-skilled such as manual workers in mining, construction and manufacturing, as well as food preparation and customer service. “The jobs most at risk in the next year or two are highly repetitive, conform to a set of rules, are probably fully documented, and with little variation; ones where queries have to be passed up the chain of command,” says Talwar.

However, he believes technologies can help improve the productivity of workers by carrying out repetitive tasks, rather than simply replacing humans altogether. “If there is already stress on the workforce, with too much work, if you get smart about automation and take out tasks that are repetitive and time-consuming, you can free up people to do more value-adding work.”

Future-proof skills

It makes sense to focus on the human skills that are not as susceptible to automation, adds Talwar; planning, people management and strategic decision-making are areas where humans currently excel far beyond the capabilities of machines but will increasingly be automated. He says training should prepare workers for the jobs technology is creating: roles that require unique human abilities such as empathy, creativity and motivation.

Companies have a stark choice: either invest in ensuring employees have the skills to grasp the opportunities created by technology, or risk hollowing out the labour market at a time when many firms cannot hire fast enough to cope with demand.


The onus is not solely on businesses; on the public policy side, Talwar says there is a need for governments to invest properly in lifelong learning and adult education systems across the world. But he adds companies have a stark choice: either invest in ensuring employees have the skills to grasp the opportunities created by technology, or risk hollowing out the labour market at a time when many firms cannot hire fast enough to cope with demand.

“There’s always a cost: it’s either to invest in people, or recruit new people, or fail to meet what you wanted to do as a business. There is a wall of evidence that [suggests] organisations that invest in continuous learning and development tend to do far better. Generally, the benefits to the business are far higher than the investment.”

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