How Will Your Workforce Needs Change in the “New Machine Age”?

A few weeks ago, I posed to you the question: What will you do if nearly half your workforce is replaced by technology? As I mentioned then, recent research by economic experts like Dr. Michael Walden at NC State University is revealing a future where job creators will likely have to answer precisely that question – and sooner rather than later, with nearly half of all occupations (44 percent) and total employees (48 percent) comprising our state’s current workforce projected to have a high probability (greater than 70 percent) of being replaced by technology in the coming decades. However, as MIT economist Andrew McAfee argues in this intriguing TED Talk, job creators should view the potential solutions to these challenges as opportunities to create a stronger economy of abundance rather than as problems that will impede the continued growth of jobs.

As McAfee explains, talk of so-called technological unemployment is nothing new. For more than 200 years, going back to at least the 18th and 19th-century Luddites who bemoaned the labor-saving capacity of the mechanical loom, concerned observers of the economy have warned of the potential job-killing impacts of technology on human labor. While these warnings have yet to come to fruition, there is mounting evidence that we should be prepared to deal with an unprecedented shift over the next several decades. That’s because, as McAfee points out, with recent advances in technology resulting in machines that are demonstrating sophisticated human skills never before replicated by robotics, we are finally witnessing a reality where for the first time many companies are truly replacing a sizeable portion of their human workforces with automated processes. That begs some further questions: first, how will your workforce needs change with the coming of this “new machine age”? And second, what can we do today to start preparing for this new reality?

This is where the opportunity factor in this equation comes into play. McAfee compares two prototypical workers to illustrate this point. In his analogy, “Ted” is a highly educated worker with an adaptable skillset working in a creative field; “Bill” on the other hand has no education after high school and works in a field that requires few skills that could not be automated by today’s technology. While “Bill” and “Ted” would have had similar opportunities in 1950s America, research trends show that “Bill’s” career and quality of life prospects have declined drastically since the 1960s (when technology began to steadily creep into the everyday lives of American workers) while “Ted’s” prospects have remained high or even improved. With these trends showing no signs of a reversal, McAfee makes a compelling case that the key to supporting a world of “Ted’s” who are prepared to thrive in the “new machine age” rests in educating people early about the skills they will need to seize the opportunities this new age will bring.

Our state’s business community must take an active role to help advance these efforts in North Carolina so we can continue closing our skills gap. Fortunately, the North Carolina Chamber and North Carolina Chamber Foundation are already considering the future impacts of technology on education and workforce development in our state. As part of these efforts, we want to engage with member companies like you in order to utilize your expertise to begin accurately modeling the impact of changing technology on our state’s future workforce. Contact Cassi Zumbiel at czumbiel@ncchamber.net if you would like to learn more about these efforts. And together, let’s make sure North Carolina continues to be a regional, national and global leader in talent development – a state that responds to changing workforce needs at the speed of business!

Gary J. Salamido
Vice President, Government Affairs
North Carolina Chamber

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