Two inescapable trends are hitting the workplace. Jobs may disappear, with organizations increasingly using gig workers to get work done and with automation making many job roles redundant. How do you stay relevant?
In my last job in the media, I cut down a five-member graphics team to just one person and a four-member copy desk was eliminated. Not that we had given up graphics work or done away with copy editing. On the contrary, we had graphics and copyediting workloads that had multiplied because of the need to do both digital and print. Many of these tasks went to people who had been part of the team in the past but who had now fashioned themselves as freelancers in these specialties. A fanciful term had come up to describe what they did: gigs. The practice of making a living through gigs, which are assignments that require specific professional skills, and the trend of companies getting their work done using gig workers, have led to what is now called the ‘gig economy’.
Many full-time roles are now handled by gig workers. Increasingly, you won’t get those jobs. It is a socio-economic phenomenon.
There’s an even more serious socio-technological phenomenon that’s lurking in the corner to take away jobs. Automation. When the World Economic Forum conference was going on in snow-laden Davos this year, a damning article was published in The New York Times titled The Hidden Automation Agenda of the Davos Elite. The article began with the ominous words: “They’ll never admit it in public, but many of your bosses want machines to replace you as soon as possible.”
Automation creates digital workers that replace human workers. The immediate targets are repetitive manual tasks and knowledge work that can be codified. Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are the respective technologies behind this phenomenon.
Career seekers in the future have to accommodate these irreversible trends to avoid being rendered jobless in the traditional sense.
The land of gigs
The gig economy is here to stay. The workplace of the future will be very different from what it is today. Organizations will have flat hierarchies with work getting done through a network of contributors and in lieu of big departments handling specific functions, there will be a thin layer of functional coordinators to bring together aspects of a particular function. The middle management layer and below will vanish because the parts of the job involving strategy, planning, and managing will move up and the parts involving production will be split between external contributors and automation.
The gig phenomenon has been more prevalent lately amongst early career professionals. Young graduatesÑ programmers, designers, event managers, digital marketers, and many othersÑ are striking out on their own – right from the beginning, and by choice.
The spectre of automation and AI
Automation is an important trend that is portrayed to be an even more potent threat to jobs. Industrial automation aside, business process automation through RPA could lead to a mass scale reordering of white-collar jobs. From a technology standpoint, RPA is rapidly converging with AI and there has been a lot of talk about AI leading to job loss. McKinsey predicts that AI (broadly defined) will eliminate 77 million jobs over the next twenty years. A Forbes article states that “the real challenge is to those early in their careers and those about to launch one; those new or about-to-enter-the-workforce need to pay very special attention to AI and RPA Ð and plan accordingly.
For organizations, RPA and AI are technologies they cannot afford to ignore. This is true even for government organizations that have the mandate of being employment generators. Given their potential to improve productivity, these technologies are addictive in some sense. In an article, the head of automation at a US government entity (Office of Management and Budget) says, “It just sweeps across the organization almost to the point where, if people are doing something manual, they feel kind of embarrassed,” he said. “Because one of their friends might say, ‘why don’t you get a bot for that?’ So that change in mindset is really powerful.”
Survive and thrive
How should career seekers brace themselves for the gig economy and the automation juggernaut?
The only answer is to prepare for and embrace the changeÑ now and for the future. This will involve investing with a sense of urgency in acquiring skills for the future, changing current behaviors to suit future requirements, adopting a growth mindset, and becoming more comfortable with change.
If you want to be part of the gig economy, you need to monitor new trends and invest in learning new and relevant skills. And once you have acquired those skills, you will have to be proactive in building your resume so that when those skills become mainstream, you get counted as a seasoned hand in that area.
Leaping into the gig economy may involve some shocks that go beyond the readjustments typical of new work routines. It may mean a permanent reordering of how work is done and what is required to keep getting work to do. Of course, it still calls for showcasing your skills, networking, and marketing.
According to a recent HBR study and article (Thriving in the Gig Economy by Gianpiero Petriglieri, Susan J. Ashford, Amy Wrzesniewski), gig workers often feel a host of personal, social, and economic anxieties without the cover and support of a traditional employer, despite the freedom to do work that they enjoy. So, there is a need to deal with these emotional ups and downs while simultaneously drawing energy and inspiration from their freedom.
Handling the inescapable onslaught of automation requires career seekers to be automation-trained. Automation skills will likely be as important as word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation skills in the future. While automation may not lead to jobs getting totally displaced, it will require being able to do things differently. With relevant automation skills, there will be opportunities to oversee automated processes across functions – HR, finance, marketing and more – and deliver higher value to these organizations.
Forrester analysts predict that RPA and AI will combine to create digital workers for more than 40 percent of enterprises in 2019. Companies will evaluate employees who direct or work alongside these digital workers based on a “robotics quotient” (RQ). According to these analysts, employees will also need to design and manage new RPA-driven processes, allowing companies to direct AI towards massive efficiencies.
We are entering an age where man and machine will collaborate to augment human capabilities, allowing people to focus on what they do best. A future workforce needs to be skilled to work alongside machines – call it human-in-the-loop – with a focus on improving intrinsically human abilities that will determine its success.