Staying employable in the future

Career advice from a futurist

The robots are coming! The robots are coming! As I discussed in a previous post, technology is going to gobble up many jobs in the next decade. Autonomous machines including self-driving cars, robots, and drones are being developed at a furious pace and will displace many blue collar workers. Artificial intelligence and analytics will replace many well-paying, white collar jobs currently done by humans. Are we facing a disaster in the employment market? What can you do to ensure you remain employable in the long term?

When my audiences ask me what the future holds for jobs, I give them a stock answer trotted out by most futurists, and then I add several important caveats that help them understand what's at stake in the coming decade. Let's start with that stock answer and then we will get into the meat of it.

From milking cows to making lattes

The stock answer: Technology has always destroyed jobs as it marched relentlessly forward. But technology also creates new jobs in that renewal process. Two hundred years ago 99% of people worked on the land. It was back-breaking, miserable work and the life expectancy of farmers was less than 40 years. Today less than 1% of America's population works on the land. People who would have been dragging a plough behind a sweaty horse two centuries ago are now car mechanics, hair stylists, or crafting lattes at Starbucks. And that is a good thing. Their quality of life is better, the quality of the food they eat is better, and they will live over twice as long as their farming ancestors of the 1800s.

Destruction and creation go hand-in-hand

Historically, technology creates more jobs than it destroys. And the jobs that it replaces are usually more unpleasant, lower-wage jobs. The new jobs that are created by technology and infrastructure advancements typically require a higher level of skill than the old jobs that are replaced. Education is therefore vital to this renewal process. Without accessible, affordable, quality education people get left behind. Unemployment balloons, and those working have to support those that don't.


So what types of jobs are safe from this technological invasion? Machines won't match humans for a very long time when it comes to tasks that require true creative thinking and problem-solving. These are tasks filled with challenges that have no prior context upon which a machine can draw experience. Examples of roles that fit into this category include designers, engineers, artists, researchers, architects, scientists, film-makers, creative writers (though not all writers), urban planners, marketing managers, hair stylists, creative directors and yes, futurists. Many people in these roles will see technology assistants that significantly aid them in their jobs, but their jobs will not be totally replaced by technology.

The other category of jobs that will not be replaced by technology are those that mostly involve human-to-human interaction. These are jobs that require human skills such as empathy, compassion, nurturing, negotiation, caring, persuasion, motivation, and social perception. Here are a few examples of jobs that fall into this particular category: Nurses, physician assistants, teachers, first-responders, law enforcement, salespeople, dental hygenists, caregivers, people managers, child minders, and all others that are in high-touch customer service.


Make no mistake, white collar workers are NOT immune from this round of automation.

Blue collar workers got hit hard over the last four decades. Millions of jobs were lost to the double whammy of outsourcing and the continued march of automation. (Side note: Automation might actually help bring some manufacturing jobs back to high-cost labor markets as the partnership of humans and machines becomes the most cost competitive way to build goods, and transport costs become a significant part of cost of goods). And higher levels of automation, including autonomous transportation, will continue to replace blue collar jobs in the next decade.

But the next BIG wave of job displacements will be amongst white collar workers. Entire categories of work, previously thought to be immune to replacement by technology, will tumble to a new wave of tech within the next decade. Some of these jobs will be gone within just five years.

The capabilities of artificial intelligence and machine learning are leaping forward at an astonishing pace. Jobs that involve repetitive, if highly-skilled, tasks are most at risk. The types of roles at risk include:

  • Radiologists
  • Financial advisors
  • Auditors
  • Accountants
  • Paralegals
  • Personal assistants
  • Bookkeepers
  • Travel agents
  • Legal aids
  • Administrative support
The Freightliner Inspiration autonomous truck, in trials now

The Freightliner Inspiration autonomous truck, in trials now

Many readers may find it easier to discard the contents of this post as the ramblings of a futurist. It's perhaps more comfortable that way. But please remember that even many computer scientists thought that computers would never be powerful enough to take on tasks like driving a car. Just a decade ago, some would have told you it was impossible. Autonomous vehicles are now a reality and will be available for sale within a few years. The tens of millions of people that rely on driving as a way to earn a living are all at risk. Truck drivers, delivery van drivers, taxi drivers, and all the people driving Uber and Lyft cars today...they are all at risk. Yet a decade ago, few people would have thought that possible, including some well-informed scientists. Continued progress in artificial intelligence WILL destroy entire job sectors. Just ask all the people that used to operate switchboards, work in typing pools, dig ditches, or work a loom. And consider all the bank tellers currently looking for work as consumers shun branches for online banking.

So what should you do to ensure you remain employable for the foreseeable future? Here are a few career tips from a futurist:

1) Focus on jobs that aren't easily replaced by robots and algorithms. These are tasks that aren't repeated over and over, where creativity, adaptability or dexterity is key. Jobs that involve a lot of human interaction are generally safer than those that don't. It will surprise some that being a nurse is very likely a safer job long term than being a doctor. The diagnostic skills of doctors are easier to replace with artificial intelligence than are the caring skills of a nurse. In the shorter term (next decade), manual jobs that require high levels of dexterity will remain immune from technological disruption. So jobs like cooks, cleaners, gardeners, dentists, surgeons, carpenters, and repair people are very safe for now. Robots are just too clumsy and slow when it comes to the manipulation of tools and objects in non-repetitive ways. For now.

2) Don't wait. Switch before you need to. Don't wait to make a career change until you absolutely have to. Try and get ahead of the curve. If the writing is on the wall for your job role, it's better to be out looking for a new line of work NOW rather than when everyone else in your profession is forced to make a leap. If you can, start getting the new training that you need now, in parallel with working in your current role.

3) Keep learning. All the time. Keep the learning muscles strong so that if you need to switch careers and learn something totally new, you are ready for it. We will all need to maintain continuous learning and stay on top of changes hitting every industrial sector in the coming decade. Be sure to make use of the many online training resources that are out there. Many high end universities let you audit their classes for free.

4) Be agile. Don't cling to a particular career path for too long. Be ready to switch and start something new.

5) Figure out who you are. This is a tougher one. Most people have no idea what they want to do for work, if not the thing they are currently doing. Start asking yourself that question now. Again, don't wait until the moment comes when you have to reinvent yourself. Think about a scenario where all jobs pay equally...what would you do then? In an era where most workers will have to retrain at least once and have two or more careers in their working lives, many of us will get a chance at Life 2.0, and will be able to look at our first careers as a practice run. Think now about what you would love to do should your entire profession disappear tomorrow. And start planning for that today.

Finally, whatever line of work you're in, watch your ass. Technology is getting better each and every day :)