What Big Business Leaders Secretly Think About the Future Workforce

Every year, the world’s most powerful people from business and politics gather in Davos, Switzerland to talk about the pressing issues of the day at the World Economic Forum. Economic development, and workforce issues in particular, are always on the menu.

This year, the New York Times offers some particularly interesting insights in an article titled “The Hidden Automation Agenda of the Davos Elite,” as shared by a NYT reporter on location:

In public, many executives wring their hands over the negative consequences that artificial intelligence and automation could have for workers. They take part in panel discussions about building “human-centered A.I.” for the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” — Davos-speak for the corporate adoption of machine learning and other advanced technology — and talk about the need to provide a safety net for people who lose their jobs as a result of automation.

But in private settings, including meetings with the leaders of the many consulting and technology firms whose pop-up storefronts line the Davos Promenade, these executives tell a different story: They are racing to automate their own work forces to stay ahead of the competition, with little regard for the impact on workers.

So, what is the scale of their thinking on workplace automation?

“People are looking to achieve very big numbers,” said Mohit Joshi, the president of Infosys, a technology and consulting firm that helps other businesses automate their operations. “Earlier they had incremental, 5 to 10 percent goals in reducing their work force. Now they’re saying, ‘Why can’t we do it with 1 percent of the people we have?’”

Now, I don’t blame business leaders for any of this: It’s the nature of the game. They want to keep their jobs just like the rest of us, and they have investors and boards of directors telling them that if they don’t increase profits, they’re out. They have to find every (legal) way to cut costs and boost sales as much as they can. In terms of cost cutting, workforce is a ripe target since it’s the largest single expense for most companies. They see their competitors making these kinds of moves, and they know that if they don’t, they’ll suffer a pricing disadvantage that will ultimately kill their business.

Of course, from a societal point of view it’s incredibly shortsighted – if we fully automate the workforce, who’s going to be able to buy the things that the fully-automated workforce produces? But business leaders aren’t held responsible for societal issues like this, unlike the profits they are very much held accountable for.

And for those of us helping the younger generations prepare to enter the workforce – where does that leave us? Is there anything we can do?

Actually, I think there are two things we can do:

  • Focus on professions that cannot be outsourced or automated. Big business leaders may want to automate every job, but they won’t be able to do that for a while. Lower-skilled jobs, and jobs with a lot of automaticity (paperwork, etc.) are likely the first to go, while jobs that require interpersonal skills, technical skills, mobility, and situational decision-making should be safe for a long time to come. Those in Career and Technical Education who focus on middle-skilled roles are in a prime position to help students secure a good future.
  • Emphasize entrepreneurship. If the workforce is going to be disrupted, then the nature of work may change from one employment to more of a freelance model – which means that young people are going to need how to market and sell their services, manage their personal brands, and manage their business expenses and finances just like a small business owner.

It’s not the perfect solution – but it does reflect a changing reality, one we can prepare our young people for if we pay attention to what’s happening and what’s coming.

Brett Pawlowski is Executive Vice President of NC3T, the National Center for College and Career Transitions (www.nc3t.com). NC3T provides planning, coaching, technical assistance and tools to help community-based leadership teams plan and implement their college-career pathway systems and strengthen employer connections with education.

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