Robesonian

Forecast is strong for jobs

I think a lot about the job market this time of year. This is because of all the graduations of high school and college seniors, and the fact many of them will be looking for their first full-time job.

It’s a cliché to say these young people will be entering a job market undergoing change, because change in the labor market has always been the norm. Still, experts say the tremendous advances in technology will continue to shape the kinds of jobs available to workers for decades to come.

Last month, the worldwide management consulting firm, the McKinsey Global Institute — MGI for short — released an exceptionally informative report about ongoing changes in the job market and what they mean for workers, businesses, and policymakers.

The institute expects automation and artificial intelligence to be the big determinants of future changes in jobs. Automation — which means using machines to substitute for humans in making products — isn’t new. It’s been occurring for 300 years.

But MGI predicts automation will be kicked up several notches as machines become more sophisticated and — especially — robots become more capable of copying the movements and dexterity of people. MGI predicts automation will continue to displace people in many areas, including manufacturing, administrative jobs, and in even some craft jobs like welding.

Yet the big game changer will be artificial intelligence, or AI — a technology allowing machines to study situations and make decisions like humans. Machines accomplish this by analyzing data from previous similar situations and applying models of how to act.

The best current examples of AI are autonomous (self-driving) vehicles. There have been numerous reports of experimental autonomous vehicles having issues resulting in accidents. But MGI predicts the AI vehicular system will be perfected, and more self-driving vehicles are just around the corner. Besides transportation, MGI anticipates major uses for AI in health care and retailing.

At this point you may be thinking the expansion of automation and artificial intelligence will be job destroyers, leaving less work for humans. While some economists agree with this outlook, MGI is more optimistic. MGI sees companies reorganizing their workforces away from tasks that can now be done by machines to those that can’t. So, there will be jobs — just different ones.

For example, in manufacturing, while jobs on the assembly line and in packaging and transportation will decline, MGI says they will expand in sales, engineering, and management. Likewise, in retailing there will be less need for shelf-stockers but more need for customer service reps.

These changes in work performed by humans will have a direct impact on the kinds of worker skills desired by companies. Between now and 2030, MGI sees an 11 percent drop in workers performing physical and manual work, but a 60 percent increase in the need for workers with technical skills like advanced programming, data analysis, technology design and maintenance, and engineering.

Perhaps one of the biggest surprises of the MGI analysis is the forecast of a greater demand for workers with communication, interpersonal, and leadership skills — skills that many companies say is lacking among today’s graduates. MGI sees a 26 percent increase in hiring of these kinds of workers between today and 2030.

A big question is how these skill shifts will occur, and who will lead it? The best outcome — especially for existing workers — is for companies to reorganize their current workforces and provide needed training for the new skills. Companies will do this if they are satisfied with their current staff and want to avoid the costs of hiring new workers.

But not all companies will be in this situation, so MGI anticipates — as do I — the expected changes in what companies want from their workers will create significant firings and hirings, meaning many workers will need to be retrained in our community colleges and universities. These institutions need to be ready with programs that are focused, affordable, and quick.

All this is great “food for thought” — maybe someday handed to us by a robot.

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Michael Walden is a Reynolds distinguished professor at N.C. State University. He does not speak for the university.