The Fourth Industrial Revolution is here. According to a recent study by McKinsey, it is estimated that between 0 and 30 percent of the hours worked globally could be automated by 2030, depending on how quickly new technologies are adopted. While very few occupations can be fully automated—in total less than five percent of jobs—around one-third of job activities could be automated, which would significantly impact the workforce.
Earlier this year, President Trump signed an executive order which created the “American AI Initiative,” meant to guide AI developments in areas such as ethical standards, automation, and research and development. The government is starting to realize that these emerging technologies are on the rise and they are interested in exploring what these technologies mean for the future of work. Business leaders are also tasked with the responsibility of figuring out how to prepare employees for the next Industrial Revolution; which will displace many workers and require many employees to “upskill” or retrain.
In the past, we have experienced three industrial revolutions. The first industrial revolution used water and steam power to make industrial manufacturing possible at scale, expanding global trade. The second industrial revolution marked the expansion of telephone, rail, and telegraph systems, which made trade and commerce easier. The third industrial revolution —the “digital revolution”—changed how we communicate and collect and distribute knowledge through the use of technology.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution describes the changes we can expect to the way we work, live, and interact with one another due to the growth of internet-powered technology, the Internet of Things, and other systems. The Fourth Industrial Revolution will mark significant changes in both the physical and digital worlds; which will create untold promise for the future of society, as well as potential problems for the workforce. This industrial revolution is not just about work, but also finding ways to positively impact the lives of others through leveraging new technologies.
The Changing Role of Technology in Society
The Fourth Industrial Revolution is the direct result of a variety of new and emerging technologies. Artificial Intelligence, for example, is expected to control the way we travel, manufacture, and care for other people. Advances in AI have made it easier to integrate Artificial Intelligence into the technologies we use frequently, which means it is expected to affect every aspect of our lives in the future.
Another trend the next industrial revolution is counting on is the growth of data. The global volume of data is predicted to double every two years, which means there will be more information available to create personalized technological experiences for people. This data will, for example, allow educators to assess student progress, assist healthcare providers in developing new treatments, influence how power grids operate, and more. Overall, data collection and data, in general, will have a growing impact on every aspect of our life. This growth of data will be combined with new technologies, such as AI and Machine Learning, to derive more insights about various problems.
There are a few other technologies which are expected to become central to the next industrial revolution: Autonomous vehicles are expected to improve road safety, transform urban infrastructure, and decrease pollution. These vehicles will help change public and private transportation systems, changing the nature of work in transportation jobs. And Blockchain technologies are expected to decentralize existing infrastructures(such as banks), along with blockchain-enabled cryptocurrencies being explored in a variety of different contexts.
The Need to Retrain Employees
Automation will impact a large number of jobs over the next few decades; which has given rise to concerns about whether there will be enough jobs for workers. According to a study by McKinsey, we can expect that 8 to 9 percent of 2030 labor demand will be in new types of occupations that have not existed before. The study also found that, historically, new technologies have created both large employment shifts but also new jobs. If the economy continues to grow, and people continue to invest, then there can be enough new job creation to offset the impact of automation.
However, even if new jobs do appear, that does not mean workers will be ready. The biggest challenge the Fourth Industrial Revolution presents is figuring out how to retrain employees who have skills which have already been automated or are expected to be automated soon. There are a couple of things both employers and the government can do to ensure that, as new jobs become available, people can access the training they need to thrive in a new career.
Investing in Vocational Education and Apprenticeships
In order to adapt to the increased role of technology in our lives and jobs, the government will need to rethink how they educate students. Many of the topics students learn in high school today will not adequately prepare them for the working world tomorrow, where most of what they have learned is no longer applicable. One solution would be to invest more resources into vocational schools and apprenticeship programs which can assist young people in learning the technologies they need to thrive in the future. The government should invest in vocational training in areas such as mechanics, computing, electronics, and other tech-heavy roles which are expected to grow in the future.
While traditional academia will likely play an important role (though potentially a more scaled-back one) in the future of work, apprenticeships and vocational training would give young workers who do not want to enter academia the hands-on experience they need. On-the-job training models such as apprenticeships would help young people learn about the nature of work, and give them experience using new technologies which will become more important in the jobs of the future. Vocational training and apprenticeships may not be right for everyone, but, used correctly, they will help empower a new generation of young people to acquire skills which will set them up for success as soon as they enter employment.
Investing in Workforce Development
In the coming decades, Both private companies and government agencies need to invest more resources in workforce development. Over the last few years, a number of large companies have launched workforce training programs designed to prepare their workers for the future. This training comes in a number of different forms:
One of the most popular new methods of training is “upskilling,” where an employer will give a worker who is in a stable field additional training to advance in their existing industry or company. For example, a company that starts using new technologies to monitor their sales may upskill their sales department and train them in the new technology. Guardian Life Insurance Company is one of many large companies which have invested in upskilling initiatives. Through this particular upskilling program, employees learn about new technologies which will affect insurance sales (such as car sensors), through a partnership with General Assembly, a coding bootcamp and training provider.
Companies will also need to invest in retraining initiatives. These programs assist workers who need to move into a new job and career because their job has been, or will soon be, automated. Retraining programs help workers learn entirely new skills and transition into a new role within the company; one which is more stable and in-demand. AT&T, for example, has invested heavily in understanding its workforce and training employees whose jobs are no longer viable. The company has invested $1 billion in a multi-year program that will retrain hundreds of thousands of employees whose jobs may be obsolete in the near future.
Further, in order to prepare workers for automation, companies can provide education as a benefit to their workers. Through these programs, a company will offer its employees access to learning materials and training programs to help them acquire new skills and therefore become more productive. Perhaps the most prominent example of this in action is Starbucks, who partnered with Arizona State University to offer eligible employees access to online bachelor’s degree programs for free. This program is expected to help employees become more efficient, and prepare them for a potential career path at Starbucks and beyond.
Companies have a strong incentive to train their existing workers, which will limit the extent to which automation will cause people to lose their jobs. If a company retrains one of their workers, they do not have to invest in laying off the existing employee, finding and hiring someone new, and onboarding and training that employee. Company-sponsored training initiatives also ensure that a company can find the right workers for a specific job when there may be a low supply of talent for that role in the current labor force. That said, government agencies can help by providing tax subsidies for training programs, and could also invest in new training programs for government employees.
Awareness of New Technologies
Investing in new educational options which train people in “hard” skills such as AI and blockchain development will be important, but it is not enough. Future educational programs need to teach people both the “hard” and “soft” skills they need to thrive in the modern workforce. Government, employers, and educators need to ask themselves what human skills and technical skills people need to succeed.
New educational programs should teach people about the technologies which will disrupt their industry, and how they work—this is an example of a “hard” skill. But workers also need to learn about how to develop the emotional intelligence necessary to work well with these new technologies. For example, new educational options should teach people to be flexible, use their initiative, and become trusting of new technologies in the workforce. Having a keen awareness of the fact that new technologies will disrupt jobs will prepare workers to more easily transition to the future of work, rather than causing people to resist inevitable changes.
Embracing a Life-Long Learning Mindset
The Fourth Industrial Revolution will require us to embrace a mindset which encourages life-long learning. In the past, graduating college was seen as the end of your formal education. However, due to the expected changes in the workforce, going to college for four years is not going to be enough to prepare people for the future of work. This means that people will need to think about how they can acquire new skills throughout their lifetime, rather than considering a college degree as the end of their education.
In Germany, people celebrate life-long learning—citizens embrace the culture of learning throughout their life, instead of just in college. Indeed, German culture embrace apprenticeship programs, and continuous learning opportunities, unlike many American workers. In order for companies and governments to fully support workers, the workers need to understand the importance of new training efforts and be willing to explore them. Society needs to become more curious about new educational programs, instead of considering college a means to an end of formal education.
The Future of Work
The Fourth Industrial Revolution is coming. And It will require us to rethink our approach to educating our workforce. The methods by which we educate workers will need to evolve at the same rate as new technologies, which means we need to explore all the options available.
Companies have a key role to play in preparing their workers for this change, which will include investing in retraining and upskilling programs, and analyzing how their workforce should prepare for new jobs. The government will also need to rethink how they approach education and move from a one-size-fits-all model to a system which trains people for the future of work.
But Individuals need to take on some of the burden as well. Workers should teach themselves about the new technologies which will define the future of work: Preparing them for the future and allowing them to stay ahead of the learning curve and transition into new and emerging jobs.