Planning a Career in the Age of Automation

Photo Credit: Owen Beard

Advancements in technology have changed the way the world works by streamlining production, increasing productivity and, as we’ve seen from the pandemic, making numerous traditional working environments obsolete. As automation continues to increase in the workforce and the future of many jobs becomes uncertain, how can college students best prepare for a successful and long-lasting career?

Automation has been transforming the workplace since the invention of the wheel. Anything that makes people’s jobs easier while simultaneously providing greater accuracy and efficiency has been beneficial for a long time, but as technology is rapidly developing, it is naturally taking over many jobs traditionally performed by people. The first wave of mass automation occurred during the Industrial Revolution, when millions became unemployed due to the invention of many manufacturing machines. Economists believe that the development of new technologies can create waves of short-term unemployment, or large amounts of job loss, which is called displacement. Already, the number of operational industrial robot jobs is increasing by 14% a year, and more than 25% of US jobs are experiencing high levels of disruption due to automation. Already automation has taken partially or completely over jobs like stock traders, travel agents and even cashiers.

 Many economists believe that technology has the ability to create new sectors of employment for well-trained individuals, but some disagree and are wary of the increasing push of AI and other technological breakthroughs in the workplace. Studies show that the percentage of people worried technology will replace their jobs has grown by over 3%, and by 2022, over 54% of American workers will need retraining or up-skilling in order to remain marketable as technology has impacted their careers.

Industry fields, especially those requiring physical labor and repetitive tasks, are perhaps some of the most heavily affected careers in the age of automation. In 2018, the five industries which were predicted to become the most automated were retail and trade, transportation, agriculture, manufacturing, and accommodation and food services. It is estimated that by 2030, robots have the potential to displace 20 million manufacturing jobs and careers which don’t require a bachelor’s degree will have a 55% chance of becoming fully automated.

According to experts, jobs which require strong cognitive abilities and analytical thinking will be less likely to become fully automated. Famous investor and businessman Mark Cuban believes AI will automate many technical jobs, especially in the financial sector, such as accountants. Jobs which rely on skills commonly taught in liberal arts degrees are going to be more secure, he believes.

The tradeoff with careers in the liberal arts field is that currently they are less in-demand than STEM jobs and offer lower starting salaries as well as less corporate mobility. Regardless, people like Cuban and Jonathan Rosenberg believe that in the future, these careers will be more stable and pose a lower risk of automatization than technical and industry positions. When choosing a degree, Rosenberg suggests that students “follow their passion, even if it’s in something that doesn’t have an obvious job prospect, but teaches you how to think.”

Bellevue College student Talia Mar is aware of the impact technology will have in her job and she is hopeful that instead of creating problems, these advancements will actually help her build a more successful career. “My dream career path is portrait photography,” she said. “This industry has definitely grown and advanced with technology, with faster software and digital content. However, I don’t think that there is a fear-factor for technology taking my place as the photographer because my job is to capture things that a robot can’t and to see through my eyes in a way that a robot can’t. It takes a creative eye and a creative element that only people can provide. I’m pretty confident that this industry that I’ve chosen will stay people-based because of how creative and how specific it is.”

You can be prepared for automation in any career by staying on top of trends in technology and proactively seeking periodical retraining. Developing skills like creative thinking and problem solving will ensure that you can remain valuable to your employer for longer. Take every opportunity to increase your skill set and learn how to be flexible and adaptable. Justin Tobin, founder of DDG consulting group, says that today’s workers are “realizing that when being an employee is the equivalent to putting all your money into one stock — a better strategy is to diversify your portfolio. So you’re seeing a lot more people looking to diversify their career.” 

Technology is rapidly changing the way we work, but the risk of automation doesn’t have to scare you when choosing your career. Being proactive is key, and looking for trends of technology displacement in the workplace, researching career outlooks and identifying job traits which discourage automation are key for setting up a successful and long-lasting career.