Are Human Care Jobs Insulated from Robotic Replacements?

In a CNBC interview with Lee Rainie of Pew Research Center, he stated that “anything that involves dealing directly with people and taking care of them” is insulated from robotic replacements in the workforce. Examples given are hair stylists, physicians, and those caring for people in nursing homes. Yet, even as Lee shared these remarks on national television, there were companies hard at work in the robot nanny industry, creating robotic replacements for what used to be (and still is) the work of caretakers. These robot applications range from entertaining and educating children (even if just supplemental at this point) as well as support or care for the elderly. There seems to be this assumption that the “high-touch” jobs are protected because there is something that we value or depend upon amid these human interactions.

What this misses is what Sherry Turkle refers to as the robotic moment. This is not a Terminator-esque takeover of robots, but something far less violent. It is the moment when we accept or even prefer a robotic substitute for a human interaction. It is happening with our interactions at banks and grocery stories, and many struggle to imagine a time when we would accept a similar technological substitute in healthcare, childcare, or even something like hair stylists. This underestimates the way in which contemporary technologies shape up, even changing that with which we are comfortable and value.

As much as I respect Lee Rainie’s work and that of Pew Research Center, my study of this subject indicates a very different potential future, especially within the next 20-40 years, one where a growing number of people will indeed accept or prefer a robotic or technological caregiver.

I don’t write this as a determinist. We can still shape what happens, but these technologies shape us as well, and suggesting to people that human interaction jobs are safe…that risks cutting off an important conversation. I don’t think we can disregard talk about robotic replacement of educators, for example, as something so outlandish as not to warrant our study and attention.

5 Steps to Closing Skills Gaps in the Modern Workforce

Do we have a skills gap today? Many sources suggest that we do. Small and large businesses are not finding the right people to achieve their current business goals, or to expand. At the same point, plenty of people are not finding good fits for themselves in the workplace. We have this because our system encourages it, but there are alternatives. As a creative exercise to demonstrate one possible way forward, here is a five-step approach to closing the skills gap, increasing access and opportunity, and celebrating the love of learning at the same time.

Stop using college degrees as a prerequisite and measure of competence. Focus on competence and experience over credentials.

For now, we can leave out the healthcare workers, engineers, and others in areas that genuinely demand highly specialized skills and precision that one develops over years of careful study and practice (although I’m not convinced that we should leave many of them out of this). Let us focus upon the many other positions that do not demand such a learning pathway. For the rest, stop requiring a college degree to apply. Instead, articulate clearly what knowledge, skills, and abilities are required and what evidence a company is willing to consider from applicants. Again, do not jump to framed pieces of paper. Focus instead upon evidence of competence. Or, if employers are willing to provide on-the-job training, articulate aptitude and traits necessary for people to benefit from that training and reach an adequate level of competence. If you do not know how to do this, there are plenty of people who can help. I might even assist if you have a compelling enough mission and vision for your business.

Of course, the problem is that I can make a suggestion like this, but the system will not change overnight. In the beginning, we will still find that many of our qualified candidates will be college graduates. Yet, if we stop focusing on the degree in our hiring and instead open ourselves up to anyone who can truly demonstrate that they have what it takes, then we are ready for the next steps.

The data analysis revolution is going to be as significant as the Internet revolution for how we think about life and work. If we do not address the gateway system in this first step, our use of data may well drive us to greater gaps and inequities. If we get informed about the benefits of a pathway over gateway approach, then our use of data at least has the potential for more humane and positive outcomes.

Start collaborating upon a college of massive “dating service” -like databases that document accomplishments, completed projects, documented experience, knowledge, skills, abilities, and traits.

Imagine the algorithmic power of modern dating services applied to online platforms that allow people to document their abilities and experiences, as well as to build connections with people and organizations who value those traits. Some say that we already have that in platforms like LinkedIn, but LinkedIn is not thought of in that way now. It is lite on helping people provide evidence and documentation of abilities, and it contains even less when it comes to offering a leading algorithmic engine that can do what I am suggesting here. Either LinkedIn needs to adjust or the employers who are leaning on LinkedIn need to be ready for that startup that begins to quickly take away market share from LinkedIn in the next 2-5 years (I might even want to help someone start that).

In fact, even when LinkedIn develops further into this area, it is good for us to have more than one major player. It is probably going to be most effective if we have ten to twenty primary providers, along with many other niche providers for specific fields. Yet, the niche providers can connect with these larger providers if we are willing to agree upon some standards and some sort of open infrastructure like what we see with open badges (especially the next generation of them).

Create incentives for diverse and world-class education and training of all kinds, and connect them to these databases mentioned in step two.

We already have a growing and massive array of training and educational opportunities today. We want to feed and nurture the growth of these. This include formal higher education institution, what I call outsider higher education programming, continuing education, informal and self-organized learning pathways, peer-led learning cooperatives, apprenticeship programs, internships programs, boot camps, communities of practice, competitions, coaching programs, and the many other current and emerging learning experiences that document what participants learn or achieve.

Note that the more creative and diverse the modes of learning, the better. We want intensive coaching, mentoring, hands on experiences, more traditional classroom training, seminars, intensives, slow learning extended over years, online, blended, and more. These all will have ways to document what is learned and achieved (without getting too sterile and stringent), but they will feed data into these step two systems (if and when people want to share their data).

We do not need to centralize too much, but our documentation of achievement and learning must have enough in common, and being in a format capable of connecting with those platforms mentioned in step two.

Make self-directed learning and agency a primary focus in elementary and secondary education.

I am not suggesting that we need to throw out the current system, but I am suggesting that there should be a substantive strand in all of elementary and secondary education that introduces people to the idea of building a personal learning network, setting learning goals and achieving them, benefiting from connected learning, and tapping into the ecosystem that is emerging as a result of steps one through three.

Reward and support the liberal arts, the examined life, and the value of rich and substantive learning for its own sake.

This does not sound like an actionable step, but I am talking about efforts equal the Carnegie investment in public libraries and many other past efforts that focused upon celebrating the love of learning, and an appreciation of truth, beauty and goodness. Think of Mortimer Adler’s investment in education that extended beyond college. He tried to rescue philosophy from the protected halls of University philosophy departments and invite the world into the discussion.Many others have done as much, but with what I am suggesting in steps one through four, this fifth step is an important part of preventing all the others from turning into a workforce factory of some sort. Learning is about more than getting jobs. It enriches lives, families, and communities. We are wise to invest in these less quantified learning spaces in formal institutions and in our communities. Not everyone will seek these out, but we can invest in growing and nurturing them.

These five steps will help close the skills gap. They will also set us up for the emerging challenges and opportunities of a connected world. Will we go this direction? It is unlikely to unfold this way without strategic leadership and investments from private and public entities. It will need the support of friendly policies, business and community leaders who buy into this and are willing to prioritize their business success over their assumptions and preconceived notations about education, entrepreneurs (and investors) who are willing to focus upon these needs, and educational leaders who are willing to champion the important formative education suggested in this plan. Do all of this and we will see a significant closing of the skills gap while preparing for some even larger workplace challenges in the near future.

The Luddites Lost, Workforce Development, and Man Versus Machine

Perhaps you’ve been in a room where someone is called a Luddite. Or, maybe a person proudly or sheepishly self-identifies as one. You likely know enough about the term to understand that it has something to do with being a skeptic about modern technology, but that isn’t the entire story. Thee term “Luddite” has come to have the modern meaning of a person who is a skeptic about or critic of the alleged promise and benefits of one or more modern technologies, but its historical counterparts did not just stop at skepticism or criticism.

The original term come from the early 19th century when new technologies replaced and displaced workers in the textile mills in England. Owners of the mills determined that these machines were a justifiable improvement upon what the workers were able to do. Angry and uncertain about their futures, some of the workers started a revolt. Led by a fictional/mythical character who came to be known as Ned Ludd, some of these workers broke into mills, destroying the machines that risked their livelihood.

In other words, the original Luddites were not just skeptics or even outspoken critics. They were people who were willing to break the law and even vandalize to be heard or seek to change the course of technological developed that risked their way of life. They were rebels and activists fueled by the personal impact of new technological developments.

Today, those who embrace the label of Luddite are far less likely to represent such an approach. Instead, they are usually people who resist the use of emerging technologies in their personal life, perhaps partly in their work, or perhaps they are outspoken among friends or colleagues about how they don’t like or support all of this technological development in their lives (but it is usually limited to certain domains that conflict with certain values). Most Luddites today, for example, are quite happy with advancements in medical technology. They might enjoy the benefits of modern transportation technology. They live in homes supported by a  variety of modern technologies. They benefit from advancement in sanitation technologies in their communities. Yet, like their original counterparts, there is some area where the technology risks their preferred way of life. Or, there are times when their jobs are on the line if they refuse to embrace and learn to use modern technologies. This applies whether you are working in sales, education, healthcare or almost any industry today.

There are, of course, people today who parallel the plight of the first Luddites in the sense that they have been or soon will be displaced by new technologies. In fact, in this emerging age of robotics and new technological developments, our broader conversations about workforce development must take into account the fact that we will continue to see people replaced or, at minimum, augmented and changed by technology. There are countless articles and presentations of this future in the media, academic publications and elsewhere.

Yet, we can learn something from the modern Luddites. One important lesson is just that they failed. Their revolt and vandalism for a half decade didn’t ultimately save their jobs. It didn’t prevent machines from replacing people. It didn’t slow technological development in society or even their industry. The same thing is ultimately true today.

That doesn’t mean that we can’t resist and strive to shape the ways in which technology can and should be used. In fact, I contend that we have a moral obligation to do so. Yet, it does mean that we must also recognize that we are indeed moving into a future where the man versus machine dichotomy (or synergy) will become increasingly common. It will change the nature of work and we are wise to have far more serious and candid conversations about what this means for modern education, society, families and the workforce.

What should education look like in an age where many tasks accomplished in the past by humans are now accomplished by non-human creations?

Unpacking the Liberal Arts Versus Specialization Conversation

There is a common sentiment among proponents of the liberal arts (I happen to be one of them) that there is a dangerous focus upon over-specialization today that puts people at risk. The argument usually sounds something like this. If you go to technical college and get a degree in a very specialized area or you go to a one-year computer programming boot camp instead of getting a B.S. in computer science, you might be better off in the short-term, but you also put yourself at risk. What happens when your area of specialized training becomes obsolete? I wrote about this recently, but I’d like to approach it from a slightly different angle in this article.

Valid Concern

First, there is a valid concern in this critique. I meet people who worked in very specialized factory jobs, for example, and when the industry changed, that job disappeared and the person got laid off. That happens around the world every day. Jobs come and go. Needed tasks appear and, over time, become less necessary due to advancements in technology, new business processes and plenty of other factors.

Clarification

Yet, I need to distinguish between the scenarios that I described above and many of the other specializations that happen through technical college, college, non-credit certifications, and the like. Many specializations today are in areas where knowledge is changing quite often. Even if you get the formal training upfront, you usually can’t just lean on that original training forever. You continue to learn and develop to stay current. That is more important in some jobs than others, but this is even (maybe even especially) important in a realm like sales.

Sales

Sales people are often engaged in ongoing training about not just how to sell, but also staying informed about their product(s), the changing market, research about their customers, new software used on the job, changes in financial options for customers, and more. How long is a car salesman going to last if she doesn’t build strong communication skills, stay up on her portfolio of products and those of the competition, build new knowledge about how to navigate the databases, and constantly learn how to take advantage of new communication technologies? These are part of working in that arena. Yet, I’ve met plenty of people who started selling when the task required far fewer of these elements. Some people stayed up with the times and made the transition. Others did not.

Here is another important note with something like sales. There are plenty of transferable skills in a domain like this. Sales is not just sales. In fact, there is a wonderful “liberal arts” element to many great sales people. There is critical thinking. There are problem-solving skills, communication skills, knowledge of psychology and the human experience, quantitative skills, and some even leverage their cultural and other knowledge to connect with or build rapport with a customer. Yes, I’ve talked Ayn Rand and Heidegger with a car sales person before. Haven’t you?

This is a field that can be and has been disrupted by technology. Salespeople had to switch the nature of their work or retool altogether. Yet, if you have the sort of skills that I just described in the last paragraph (including a lifelong learning mindset), you have a good chance of landing on your feet. These are valued traits in the workplace and communities. As I’ve written before, liberal arts colleges don’t have a monopoly on the concept of the liberal arts.

Does This Apply in Other Fields?

Some might argue that sales is not the sort of specialized training that they are referencing. After all, plenty of liberal arts college graduates end up in sales. They do so without any specialized training in sales and can do quite well. That is different than other fields that require much more specialized training…like perhaps something in a medical field.

The Medical Field

Let’s explore that one a bit more, which brings me to the title of the article. Everyone working in a medical field today is specialized to some extent. In fact, from one perspective, isn’t medical school specialized training? Yes, you finish with some sort of specialization but the study of medicine itself is specialized and distinct from a myriad of other jobs in healthcare. Of course, I don’t hear too many people arguing that this specialized training will become obsolete soon (Although, that is a possibility. There are rich conversations about the impact of developments like telehealth, personalized medicine, health informatics and big data, advancements in self-care, robots in healthcare, along with leveraging more non-MD healthcare workers and using a smaller people of MDs.).

I understand that the specialized training associated with being an MD is different than the specialized training associated with becoming a plumber. Yet, I see plenty of similarities as well. Both entail constant technical changes and advancements. Both require staying current. Both require additional emotional and social skills beyond the specialized training to excel. Both benefit from strong character and convictions. In addition, granted that you paid attention to these other elements, both provide an ability to transfer into new and often very different fields.

Learn and Unlearn

Toffler wrote this and said it often. The educated of our age are those who have a keen ability to learn and unlearn. Specialization is a reality for many jobs. It is not about avoiding specialized training. We need that to get so many jobs done and done well. Yet, hardly anybody has a job protected from change in the modern world. That is why I am others talk and write about the importance of non-cognitive skills, learning how to learn, and the importance of developing the capacity for self-directed learning. These are just as important in specialized training as anywhere else.

Just Another Defense of the Liberal Arts?

Isn’t this just another defense of the liberal arts? As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I see great value in the liberal arts. It is just that many today seem to be setting up a strawman when they contrast specialized training with the values of a liberal arts education. They are not mutually exclusive. There is not one sacred pathway to developing these values and the associated mindsets, knowledge, and skills. Technical schools might not be liberal arts schools in the modern sense, but it doesn’t mean that that can’t nurture critical thinking, problem solving, learning how to learn, any many other traits that some associate with the liberal arts, including elements like an appreciation for culture and the arts (which was a point in my last article on this subject).

What About for Your Own Kids?

One critique of my past writing about these ideas, especially the concept of multiple pathways (some of which might not include college) is that this is the sort of thing elitists say is good for other people’s children but not their own. They talk about the merit of technical training and how a traditional liberal arts college experience isn’t essential, but then they send their kids to the best liberal arts schools in the nation. Instead, such critics often argue that our goal should be to send as many people as possible to college.

Yet, isn’t that forcing a preferred pathway on everyone else? Doesn’t that perpetuate the monopoly on access to certain types of jobs that people without college degrees could do exceedingly well? I argue that the learning is and should be seen as more important than the pathway. In fact, when we look at the need for learning across the lifespan, the person who gets this is at a huge advantage.