By Martin Pienaar, Mindworx COO

Alarmists are speculating that 50% of jobs today will be gone in a decade due to smart algorithms, machine learning and robots replacing jobs. This has been the case in every revolution fuelled by technology changes, right back to the Luddites burning mill machinery that they feared would take their jobs in England in the 1800’s. It’s true that 33% of people employed in America 100 years back were in the agricultural sector, while only 2% of Americans are employed in that sector today. We had the same fears of the PC and internet revolutions that followed and yet in each of these revolutions newer jobs were created than jobs were lost. Will this revolution be different?

While many jobs have disappeared in the above-mentioned waves of change, many more have been created. If one looks back only 10 years there are a plethora of new jobs employing thousands of people, that did not exist before that. Drone pilots, YouTube content creators, social media sentiment analysts, Uber drivers, autonomous car engineers, robotics process automation trainers and cloud computing specialists are to name just a few.

Only about 5% of jobs can be completely automated with current technologies. These jobs, like sorting of fresh fruit and vegetables, graders and sewing machine operators, are already becoming redundant. At the other end of the scale, jobs like psychiatrists and legislators, are almost impossible to automate at all. All other jobs sit on a scale in between these two extremes, with about 60% of jobs being 30% automatable.

So, two much bigger opportunities arise for me – what to do with the 30% of so many jobs that will become free time, and how can we use machines to augment our intelligence to make us more competitive in our jobs?

Some will choose to use the spare time to achieve a greater work-life balance. Others will invest that time in growing their skills, and others will use the opportunity to become more proactive or make more customer calls. Since we are becoming healthier and living longer, it’s quite possible we are going to have to work for many more years or face the prospect of running out of retirement savings before we run out of years. It makes sense to keep investing in growing skills which are in demand. Fortunately, it is becoming cheaper (often free) to acquire these skills through online universities or other sources of online content. And some of these courses are available through the Mindworx Academy.

Being able to work with machines, rather than seeing them as a threat, is very important. I was on a business trip to Cape Town recently and was making calls on my way to my meeting. This being unfamiliar territory, I ended up going in the wrong direction onto the N1 highway, because I had elected not to switch on Google Maps, which would have augmented my intelligence and got me to my destination faster. It’s a simple example, but one that shows a combination of human intelligence augmented by machine intelligence. A great example of the progress of machine learning is IBM’s Watson, which has been trained to spot early-stage cancer by being fed millions of cancer patient x-rays. The machine is now better able to spot early stage cancer than a trained oncologist can. I doubt that this will lead to oncologists becoming redundant anytime soon, but I imagine instead them becoming more competent at their jobs, augmenting their skills with Watson’s insights. In order to benefit from the technology, the oncologist will need to understand the benefits, the shortfalls and ensure that he/she is competent in the use of the technology. We will all need to learn new skills to remain relevant.

There are many examples of new business models that have been developed to take advantage of improvements in machine learning. One is the advent of ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft. The amount of information that is created by these vehicles is significant and is providing an obvious platform for autonomous vehicles in future. Another benefit of this “on demand” world is that we have become accustomed to rating our Uber driver and Airbnb hostess (and being rated back by them!) and this instant feedback culture will permeate the workplace. The era of once a year performance reviews is over and, particularly the millennial generation, expect regular feedback on performance – we live in a world of instant gratification. Managers will no longer only manage employees but will be managing outside agencies and contingent workers too. Skills like communication and collaboration need to be honed now, more than ever before.

With innovation cycles speeding up, companies are having to scale up (and down) quickly. Skills are in constant demand and not all will be provided by full-time employees. Workers who work in the “gig” economy by choice are reporting higher levels of work satisfaction due to flexibility and feeling they are in control of their destinies. BCG research shows that around 66% of job descriptions will change in the next five years as roles evolve and components of jobs are automated. In addition, hundreds of new job profiles will have to be written.

To remain competitive in this age companies will need to restructure operations, customer service and improve productivity. They will need to rethink the skills that they require and rapidly re-skill their workforce and change its composition. Artificial intelligence will play a major role in equipping staff with additional skills and capabilities, allowing them to remain competitive in an ever-changing world.

Focus your skills on those that machines will find hard to compete with for a long time to come. For machines to thrive there needs to be high volumes of homogenous transactions. We humans outperform machines when empathy, collaboration, creativity and brainstorming ideas and taking risks are involved. We need to hone these skills, and also build resilience and train ourselves in solving complex problems.

We live in exciting times and I look forward to an era of increased productivity, convenience and incredible customer service enabled by technology and a more harmonious interplay between work and family life.

And when you’re ready to scale up (or down), or upskill your workforce, give us call, we’re always ready to help.