Think the digital workplace doesn't reach you? Think again

Think you can escape the digital revolution and keep your job? Think again.

No profession is untouched by the changing digital landscape, from construction to retail, never mind the health care and finance professions, according to a report from Brookings Institution. What's more, the pace is accelerating. 

Almost 4 million of 13 million new jobs created since 2010 require "high-level" digital skills, the think tank concluded, adding that two-thirds demand high- or medium-level skills

"We are now in the last few years in which there are jobs that require no digital skills," said Mark Muro, lead author of the report and a senior fellow at Brookings. "There won't be those jobs for very many years longer."

More than 32 million U.S. workers had jobs requiring a high level of digital skills last year, up from 6 million in 2002, according to the report. Another 66 million need moderate digital skills, up from 49 million. Workers with jobs requiring a low level of digital skills fell to 41 million from 69 million.

Brookings took 545 occupations that make up about 90 percent of all jobs in the U.S. economy and scored them, using a rating of zero to 100 for each occupation's need to use digital technology. The average score for all occupations rose to 46 in 2016, up from 29 in 2002.

Chances are, how you work has changed in some way whether you wanted it to or not. If you drive to your job, for example, you may use an app like Waze to help pick your way through traffic. Once you get there, you're talking to your colleagues through text or instant messaging via your smart phone. And industrial use of technology spans oil and gas exploration to automakers to trash pickup. Even scientific research is moving faster because of data storage in the cloud.

And most jobs require basic knowledge of software like Microsoft Office or Salesforce software, Muro said. Just how quickly that's changed surprised researchers.

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"The pervasiveness and the speed of change exceeded expectations," he said. "The obvious fact is that though we clearly do have a shortage of high-end coding and other software development professionals, there may be an equally or more acute challenge at the lower and medium (tech-related) level of the occupation spectrum."

That might help explain why some industries, even those you wouldn't ordinarily think of as digital, are finding it difficult to fill jobs.

Take construction. While still at the low end of the Brookings digital scores, welders, cutters, solderers and brazers went to a score of 23 in 2016 from a score of 3 in 2002. For construction laborers, that figure jumped 15 points to 17 percent. Roofers jumped to 22 in 2016 from zero in 2002. For construction managers, that digital score jumped a whopping 43 points to 60 last year.

By contrast, software developer scores slipped 3 points to 94 in 2016 as more management positions were created. That's even as the labor shortage in some higher-paying, higher-skilled jobs like data science worsened.

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As the construction industry copes with a labor shortage, more companies are boosting their use of technology, according to a recent survey from the Associated General Contractors of America. In that survey of more than 1,600 firms, 70 percent reported having difficulty finding qualified craft, or on-site, workers.

In addition to more in-house training, boosting overtime hours and more subcontractor use, 22 percent of those in the AGCA survey use more labor-saving equipment, 11 percent prefabricate parts of structures off-site and percent use virtual construction like Building Information Modeling, or BIM.

And that's just technology available today. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers website this month features ways construction sites might automate in the future. In just one example, ASME imagines drones constructing buildings using 3D scanners. Some companies are already using machine-learning to perfect construction scenarios usually drawn up by people.

Other lower-wage jobs are digitizing too, such as in retail, where only 8 percent of employees have what would be considered a "good job" -- one that pays at least $15 an hour, according to a recent survey.

In the Brookings study, retail's score rose to 41 on the scale last year, up from 28 in 2002. Having skills to use inventory or record-keeping software is now commonplace, making it crucial workers know how to navigate such technology. 

"Retail is a great example because to be a retail supervisor, there's a huge jump in the skill level that's needed," Muro said.

Such a shift can have profound economic consequences. The study found digital infusion is happening everywhere, but at an uneven pace, geographically and on the pay scale.

Massachusetts, Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania topped the list of states with the most digitally oriented occupations. Yet Utah, Arizona, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas and Rhode Island all had scores increase.

That ties closely with average wages. In Massachusetts, Washington D.C., Maryland and Connecticut, wages are typically at least $55,000 a year. In Nevada, at the lower end of the digitization score scale, it's closer to $43,000.

"This doesn't mean that everybody needs to go to coding bootcamp," Muro said. Rather, they need to know office software, or medical billing, or human resources software.

"This isn't just about the software industry. ... This isn't just about the IT departments," Muro said. "Virtually all occupations are being transformed."