The machines are coming (oh my!). But what’s new? Machines have been coming since the invention of the wheel. Over time, machines have changed the way work is done, frequently allowing fewer people to do more, or, taking “share of labor”. For the most part, the emergence of machines, and technology in general, has been incremental. It’s also focused on the most routine and arduous jobs for now. So, workers have had time to adopt new skills to stay ahead of the changing workforce demands. But the pace of machine evolution has been accelerating at a compounding rate and workers are more than beginning to get scared. Here I present seven evidence-backed ways to protect your job from technology.

Technological innovation has been changing in at least three ways:

  1. Rate: Despite misuse and interpretation, Moore’s law does model the increasing rate of change in computer capacity. Moore predicted that the technology underpinning the processing speed of computers would double every 18 months. Illustrations abound depicting his predictions of accelerated change.
Moore's law diagram
Moore’s Law – Logarithmic Plot
  1. Volatility: Disruptions, or rapid and radical developments in technology, have become more common. In essence, new technology can “go viral”, infusing and dispersing itself with surprising speed and impact. Digital cameras took film quite quickly.
  1. Magnitude: When globalization hit the scene, entire components of our workforce went away (pun intended). Call centers made the early moves with manufacturing and programing soon to follow.

Change plays right into people’s psychological weak spots.

The Perfect Storm

Three aspects of change unnerve people:

  1. Rate – As speed increases, accuracy decreases. If you want to really “excite” someone at work, pull out a stopwatch.
  1. Volatility – People do NOT like unpredictability, and that’s what disruptions create. Note the fate of network TV when digital cable came along. What happens when a new “system” is suddenly turned on in an organization? Better have a contingency plan.
  1. Magnitude – The bigger the change, the lower the likelihood that folks can, or will, adapt. Outsourcing and globalization did not really change jobs, it gave them to someone else. This has attracted the biggest reaction so far.

Note the pattern: Change plays right into people’s psychological weak spots.

Control and Trust are Crucial

These are the cornerstones of psychological health. When it comes right down to it, the most basic question we face has two answers: “I’m okay” and “I’m not okay”. Control and trust determine the answer for any situation. If you have neither, run! Most times you will have one or both.

So, what can you do to “weather the technological storm?” In short,

Focus on what you can control.

Here I list seven ways that you can protect your job from technology. As I write, I realize, though, that these steps are really more about protecting yourself from technology more so than your job. Either way, I hope at least one suggestion gives you an actionable idea.

  1. Seek to understand and predict where technology is going in your work. The better you can do this, the more time you have to ‘get ready’ for the change. Levy and Murnane (2004) devised a simple matrix to answer the question: “What tasks do machines do better than people?”
Protect your job from technology: Levy and Murnane's matrix showing routine vs. non-routine and manual vs. cognitive quadrants
Levy & Murnane (2004) Matrix of Automation

A) Routine jobs are easiest for machines and the first at risk:

i.  Manual routine jobs like stamping “received” on a brief are at high risk.

ii. Cognitive routine jobs like proofreading also are at high risk.

B) Non-routine jobs are more challenging for machines:

i.  Manual non-routine jobs like stocking groceries are at less risk.

ii. Cognitive non-routine jobs like writing novels are at the least risk.

Consider your job from this framework. Be prepared to move up (toward cognitive skills like solving problems) and/or right (toward non-routine skills like repairing machines).

… the likelihood {is} that you will be joined by technology, not replaced by it

  1. Understand what’s really happening or likely to happen as technology enters your work.

A) Is my job being replaced by a machine, or complemented with one? Most researchers and experience point to the likelihood that you will be joined by technology, not replaced by it (at least not as a first ‘move’). Learn how to work with the new technology and show that you like it. (Remember, someone with more authority than you probably brought it in).

B) If you’re highly skilled, you’re likely to be first in demand when new technology arrives. Your knowledge and expertise will be used to coach and train others. But this won’t last forever. Keep your eye out for new challenges.

C) If you’re less skilled, you will be more valuable after the technology has been around long enough for the trainers to move on. Keep the faith.

  1. If you lead others, communicate frequently about when and how technology will be used; position the resources necessary to educate and train the workforce to succeed.

A) You have control to build and support capability in the workforce.

B) How you communicate and address concerns will raise the level of trust.

  1. If you hire people, pay attention to their expertise and ability to deal with change.

A) Flexibility will be vital for all in order to adapt to our changing world.

B) Experts will be necessary to lead and embed technology changes.

  1. Consider the following job families, scientifically predicted as “least likely to be automated in the next 20 years” (Frey and Osborne, 2013). Even if you’re well into your career, there’s a good chance you can better secure your job by improving your social intelligence. (Robots aren’t good at jobs that depend on people skills – especially those requiring social intelligence).
Protect your job from technology: Frey and Osborne's table depicting bottlenecks to automation
Frey and Osborne (2013) – Bottlenecks to Automation
  1. Craft your work. As machines, or those who use them, eat their way into the social, political, educational and financial world, we consumers can exercise choice in our purchasing power. Just like some now are willing to pay a premium for products made in the USA, in the future the same will happen for “Made by hand” (and not just cigars). Seek to incorporate your personal brand in your work. The more labor-of-love, “crafted” works will stand out from the machine made stuff like the old, unvarnished desk does from the one finely polished on “Antiques Road Show”.
  1. Be nice to people. Research is clear that being liked at work (specifically, by your boss) results in better reviews (Longenecker, 1986). (If this sounds political, it is; but the same research also reveals a positive relationship between being liked and being good – seems to fit). Robots may be able to say “please” and “thank you”, and even do the job better, technically speaking. But they’ll never gain the authentic trust that you as a person uniquely can. Even as babies, we’re able to distinguish the most subtle facial expressions. Smile with your heart.

Take comfort accepting that your job is more likely to change than to disappear.

Yes, machines and robots and artificial intelligence are coming. Worrying won’t get you anywhere. Take comfort accepting that your job is more likely to change than to disappear. If you continue to expand and sharpen your skills, particularly those specified, above, you can relax — for a while!

My hope is that this article allays some of the ‘doomsday’ concerns raised by fear mongering media under the title: “Will a Machine take my Job?”

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Published by R. Chris Steilberg, PhD

Endlessly curious about why people do the things they do and the connections and differences among us. For every 'thing' I learn, I realize more that I haven't. I guess I'm on a full-out quest for relative ignorance.

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