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How to Keep Your Job in a Hi-Tech Future

Executive pay and corporate profits are up, but unfortunately unemployment isn't down much. Why? Economists argue about whether general economic gloom has depressed demand, worries over the deficit have kept businesses from investing or mismatches between workers' skills and available openings are to blame. But one author has a different answer.

In his book, The Lights in the Tunnel, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Martin Ford argues that a large and growing chunk of our unemployment problem is down to advancing technology. The usual wisdom is that tech might replace a few jobs but, overall, it creates more employment than it destroys. But Ford isn't buying it, as he explained in a recent article for Fortune discussing the Jeopardy winning computer Watson and explaining why he feels it's different this time:

The technologies that power Watson will likely find their way into a variety of software applications and robots that can compete for both high and low skill jobs. As artificial intelligence software improves and hardware becomes dramatically faster and more affordable over the coming decade, job creation in both low and high skill occupations risks falling short of expectations. And employers in a wide range of industries may increasingly choose technology over people. Few, if any, economists seem willing to acknowledge that scenario, but if it does come to pass, what we consider unacceptable levels of unemployment today could become the new normal tomorrow.
It's a bleak scenario and one that seems especially grim for young workers who are hoping to keep themselves employed through several decades of rapid technological change. If Ford is right about the impact of technology, what can young people do to prepare and stay employable? Entry-Level Rebel called Ford up and asked him.

Is there such a thing as a safe job going forward?
We're going to see technologies like machine learning and specialized types of artificial intelligence make it easier and easier for computers and machines to do the kinds of jobs that people who sit at a desk in front of a computer manipulating information are getting paid to do right now. I think in particular a lot of knowledge-based and entry-level jobs -- the jobs that often college graduates get just starting out -- are going to be relatively susceptible probably in the next five to ten years.

So how will young people enter the workforce?
It's definitely going to be a problem. It creates very top-heavy organizations. You're not training people for the future. The people who are coming out of college now who are supposed to get these entry-level positions, 20-30 years down the road there are going to be fewer of them or the ones who are there are going to have less experience. That clearly is a problem because you can automate a lot of the jobs but you still ultimately need people to lead.

Do you agree then with those that think college is a bad investment at the moment?
I agree to a certain extent. I wouldn't necessarily endorse Peter Thiel's advice to drop out of college. He's dealing with people who are extraordinarily elite. In terms of a systemic solution that's going to work for everyone, it's not good advice.

What we're seeing basically is that if you don't have a college degree, for the average person, there just aren't many opportunities out there. You don't have a good chance of entering into the middle class. So that, to a certain extent, is creating what you could call a bubble, because people are desperate. You've got to go to college because the alternative is nothing, and college costs have been astronomical probably partly because of that. A lot of institutions understand that people will pay whatever they have to pay.

Except from a very elite group, college is becoming more focused on this desperate attempt to find specific skills and what I think the problem you're going to find in the future is even when people manage to do that, the skills that they acquire are going to become outdated very quickly because of the rate at which things are moving. So it's going to be very difficult to acquire a set of skills that are going to last you for a career. You're going to have to keep going back and refocusing and the problem is it's becoming extraordinarily expensive to do that.

Expect change. It's very risky to undertake a big investment in education assuming that you're going to have a career that's going to be there the way your parents' careers might have been there.

What sectors are safest?
At the moment, the conventional wisdom is that healthcare is a good area. I think that's probably true. Anything that is very orientated towards interpersonal relationships is going to be relatively protected. Entrepreneurship is good. If you can start a business and work for yourself you're obviously going to be better off than if you're dependent on working for someone else.

In general, my advice to kids is try to study science or technology if you can. I think those are the areas that are going to offer the most opportunity. And be flexible. Be entrepreneurial. Create your own job if you can.

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(Image courtesy of Flickr user RedCraig, CC 2.0)
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