Pretty much everyone agrees that advanced AI is in the process of radically changing the employment landscape. What no one seems to be able to agree on are which jobs exactly the robots are going to take.

Will the jobs created offset those eliminated, or will we need fewer workers overall? Are more advanced professions, like law and medicine, immune from disruption? (Looks unlikely). And how will society deal with those whose skills become obsolete? All these questions are hotly contested by economists and technologists.

Where does that leave you?

Which leaves regular folks in a bit of a bind. Change is coming, the experts warn, but sorry, we can't tell you how to prepare. Well, thanks for that guys, you might respond.

Except every once in awhile an expert is willing to make an actually actionable prediction that could help young people or those worried about the future of their careers make informed choices about how to best up their odds of successfully surfing all this technological upheaval. David Deming, professor of education and economics at Harvard University, is one such expert.

On the World Economic Forum website earlier this year, Deming argued that there are two key skills you should beef up if you want to maximize your chances of working with robots, rather than being replaced by them. In short, social skills and math are crucial.

One skill won't save you.


You might think the high-tech workplace of the future would embody a Spock-like rationality, but, according to Deming, modern offices, "where people move between different roles and projects, closely resembles pre-school classrooms." And just as in kindergarten, basic emotional skills, like empathy and cooperation will be key.

But high EQ isn't enough to ensure career success. The ability to understand and interact with others will get you a job in the future, but if that's the only weapon in your arsenal, you're likely to end up being poorly paid, warns Deming.

The same issue applies to math skills. Is acing college calculus a passport to future job security? It can't hurt, but things are more complicated than that. Routine mathematical tasks like those done by bank tellers and clerks are clearly on their way to becoming fully automated. Just crunching numbers is something robots can do better than you.

What you need to distinguish yourself in the new professional landscape, Deming believes, is a combination of soft skills AND math. His analysis shows that jobs which demand both, such as management analysts, computer programmers, financial managers, and registered nurses are among the fastest growing professions of the last few decades.

It's a good reminder to all of us. For techies, Deming's post is a healthy nudge to not neglect the more high-touch human skills that help coders and others apply their knowledge to real-world problems. And for those more inclined to focus on the touchy feely, this serves as a wake-up call that out-sized empathy is no excuse to skip that college statistics course. For your best shot at a long-lived career, you need both.

Published on: Oct 14, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.