In a recent interview, Bill Gates said that technology is dampening the demand for jobs. Within the next 20 years, he believes, "labor demand for lots of skill sets will be substantially lower." And I agree with Mr. Gates to an extent. Many jobs will become obsolete due to automation, certainly. That's already happening today, and I've written about it before.
But at the same time, I don't think this means that we're headed into a world of robots and unemployment. There's a bigger picture where technology and talent are concerned--and it's not about replacing jobs, it's about reframing them.
What does that mean exactly?
1. To begin with, the relationships between people and enterprises are being transformed by technology.
This is critical to understand, because it's not just jobs that are changing. Technology--everything from the Internet to mobile devices, social networking, and the rise of big data--has completely changed how we live and how we interact with businesses. We are now constantly generating powerful data that specifically informs companies--regardless of industry--how they can best serve us. So in order to compete, businesses must necessarily adapt their strategies for this world of interconnectivity.
2. As such, all roles will change, which means the skills needed to fulfill those roles will change.
Technology itself isn't just automating and thereby eliminating jobs--it's changing what it means to perform those jobs.
Take sales reps, for example. We have moved into a realm where automation software has revolutionized what we can do with lead generation and nurturing. Does that mean we don't need salespeople anymore, and computers will take over? Not at all. We still need sales people, but they will need different skills. They won't need to be experts at cold calling and hand-shaking early in the sales cycle. Now the data does that in real time. Technology can now predict for us on-the-fly who the most qualified leads are, and who is most in need of our attention. Consequently, we're going to need folks with the ability to follow up on that kind of information, people who can understand and apply analytical insight later in the sales process. And this is true across numerous industries. Advertisers won't be slick message makers anymore. They'll spend less time trying to create one perfect commercial and more time coming up with an assortment of messages that they'll run through sophisticated A/B tests in order to gather the data that explicitly shows them what works and what doesn't. Customer service reps won't waste time checking in on customers who want to be left alone--they'll focus on tending to customers that the algorithms indicate might be in danger of churning.
In general, as we gather and apply data-driven insight, we will see less need for rote and reactive skill sets in all professions, and a greater need for people who are able to proactively respond to targeted data. In many cases, this will even mean that new roles will be created for people who will specifically work on tweaking these machines and algorithms in order to keep business processes running smoothly.
3. Ultimately, education is the key to remaining relevant.
Bill Gates is definitely right when he warns us that "software substitution" is changing the labor market. And yes, maybe we will see robotic nurses or waitresses in the coming years, as he has mentioned. Maybe we will see the end of human telemarketers. Why not? These are certainly types of jobs that computers can be programmed to accomplish. However, the response to this kind of prediction shouldn't be an assumption that with these "substitutions" comes the end of an entire profession. Yes, there are robots connected to algorithms and to the Internet, and they're being programmed to make things--but we still need people on the assembly line. There are fewer workers on the shop floor, but there are people there. And those people holding on to those jobs will have to have the kind of education one needs to work with these systems. If the computer is now the one making the telemarketing call, perhaps the human telemarketer now leverages the data generated by that computer to turn cold calls into customers. The technology merely creates room for innovation--and that's what people do best, when they are educated to seize that opportunity.
In my opinion, the appropriate response to the ways in which technology is transforming jobs and businesses and relationships needs to be what has kept humans ahead of machines--human exploration, study and creativity. Seek out the training you need to stay current and to adapt alongside your profession. And if you're still concerned that the demand for low-skilled jobs is dwindling away, then let's work to answer that by changing the types of skills we consider to be basic and fundamental. Humans ingenuity always seems to surprise those afraid machines will eliminate meaningful work. The historic transitions for previous and current generations are never easy--but they happen.