Shaping skills for a new Industrial Revolution

By 2020, the fourth Industrial Revolution will transform the way we work, live and interact.

Many jobs that involve predictable and routine-based tasks will be replaced by robots and machines. As a result, workers will need to embrace new skills in order to prepare for the future. The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report highlighted 10 skills needed for the future: Complex problem-solving; critical-thinking; creativity; people management; coordinating with others; emotional intelligence; judgement and decision-making; service orientation; negotiation; and cognitive flexibility.

Why are these skills so important?

Advanced technologies are able to solve problems through instructions. However, high-level skills that involve creativity, critical-thinking and emotional intelligence are hard, if not impossible, for technologies to replicate. Easy-to-learn skills are at the risk of being replaced by robots and other technologies – and unless employees can learn the skills that are still unique to humans, they risk the threat of unemployment.

In current economic research, it is shown that the growth rate of capital income has exceeded that of labour, globally. This means income from machinery and other capital sources represents larger proportions of revenue for countries than the income generated by labour.

In addition, the decreasing cost of technology has made automation more cost efficient than paying wages, particularly with low-skill jobs thus leading to a rise in cases of robots replacing low-skill tasks. A good example is the self-service checkout option that large department stores, like Walmart, now feature. Considering this, we must ask if, as students and as a society, we are prepared for the high unemployment rates that threaten to plague the economy by replacing low-skill workers with future technologies? If high unemployment rates occur in the future, how may we handle this change on the labour market?

Such structural changes are cost effective and promote technological advancement. However, with unpredictable tasks like construction, nursing or management, which require a high level of cognitive skills, humans simply cannot be replaced. The very essence of being human is the innate ability to think on a higher level and create new ideas.

Nevertheless, individuals in the workforce must strive to remain irreplaceable. This means being flexible and able to adapt to rapidly changing technology. Workers must also focus on developing transferable skills in and out of traditional employment. Studies have shown that millennials will change jobs at least eight times in their lifetime and to cope with this, individuals must possess skills applicable across jobs and even across industries. There must be an emphasis on continuous self-education to meet the growing demands of this fourth Industrial Revolution as the previous day’s knowledge can quickly be outpaced by technological advancements.

On a larger scale, educational institutions should emphasize creativity in studies. For every course being studied, there must also be emphasis on the entrepreneurial application. Society must begin to teach people how to not only to be good employees, but also to be creative employers of labour to create more jobs.

Immediate solutions to reduce the risk of unemployment may start with swift action by the government to increase public investment in programs that help workers develop the soft and hard skills currently missing in the workforce. Also, it is needless to say that increased enrollment in STEM subjects will ensure that we remain on the favourable side of the new divide. With these measures put in place, we can avert the danger of being booted out by robots.

The global nature of this fourth Industrial Revolution requires appropriate actions in multilateral, social, academic and industry activities. Decision-makers will need to be open to innovative ideas and ready to undertake the massive changes to how we work, communicate and interact with each other. As the next generation of business and political leaders, we need to be responsible in how we reshape and rethink our society with respects to these vast changes.

Ultimately, it will come down to a question of creating value.

Going beyond basic tasks, repeatable processes and logical progression in product and service development means using the skills that we are yet unable to program into machines. But with the evolution of machine learning, and the continuous investment in artificial intelligence, even those skills may soon find be replaced. To some, it may just seem like a matter of time before our own capabilities become redundant.

In the end, the most successful among us will remain those who can continuously push the frontier of what we are capable of. As it has been in the past, individuals who have new ideas, who are able to motivate and organize people, and who have the vision and drive to see past the activities of daily life, will never find themselves obsolete.

Michelle Ampadu, Anudeep Sultania, Alafiya Shabir, Liam Wicken, Tobi Tayo, and Conner Campbell are members of the UWO Collaborative Economics Initiative, a think hub of Western students who collaborate on research in economics, awareness of economic issues, and engage in a broad range of discussions on economic events.