The Robots Are Coming—Could Your Job Be at Risk?

Robots are coming for our jobs, and they are gaining on us fast.

Earlier this month, market research firm Forrester said by 2021, machines will eliminate 6 percent of U.S. jobs, starting with customer service reps and ending with truck and taxi drivers. And that is expected to grow much higher in the coming years. An earlier study by Oxford researchers estimated 47 percent of U.S. jobs were at high risk of “computerization” over the next two decades.

Whether it’s in the next few years, or the next few decades, it’s clear many Americans will be affected—and yet we’re living with our heads in the sand. A Pew study from March found that 80 percent of U.S. adults believe their jobs will exist in the current form in 50 years; and, according to a 2015 Monster.com survey, 63 percent don’t believe their jobs could ever be entirely performed by a machine.

The disconnect is stunning.

While intelligent people can disagree about the extent of disruption and havoc that artificial intelligence will wreak on workers, anyone who’s used self-checkout at a grocery store or interacted with a bank only through an ATM should realize that change is coming—and those who fail to prepare may be in big trouble.

Is Your Job at Risk?

Signs of this are everywhere, and not just at the supermarket. Walmart recently announced it was eliminating 7,000 back-office accounting jobs, largely by automating the workers’ tasks. Earlier this year, Foxconn, the firm that makes Apple and Samsung phones, said it was replacing 60,000 factory workers with robots.

Some of this change is obvious: It’s not difficult to imagine machines manning an assembly line or flipping burgers. But repetitive tasks aren’t limited to factories and kitchens. Many workers today—even highly-paid ones, like lawyers—find themselves doing similar tasks over and over. If that’s you, there’s a target on your back with an automated laser pointed at it.

Change happens fast these days, which makes it unlikely that we’ll be able to retrain America’s workforce fast enough to take on robot-proof jobs.

That said, a report by McKinsey earlier this year offered a more balanced—and less dire view—of the issues. It said that while machines will eliminate many tasks, like flipping burgers, they won’t necessarily eliminate entire jobs. “Certain activities are more likely to be automated, requiring entire business processes to be transformed, and jobs performed by people to be redefined, much like the bank teller’s job was redefined with the advent of ATMs,” it said.

McKinsey found that as many as 45 percent of activities performed by individuals, even executives and other high earners, can be automated, such as paperwork demands on financial managers and physicians. Machines will free up those workers to spend additional time on more important issues, like managing people and imagining new products.

“Fewer than 5 percent of occupations can be entirely automated using current technology,” the report says. “However, about 60 percent of occupations could have 30 percent or more of their constituent activities automated.”

In other words, people who have value beyond the rote tasks they do every day might actually thrive in a robot-heavy workplace. But those whose jobs are, let’s say it, completely boring, are in big trouble.

How Can You Robot-Proof Your Job?

So, what can you do to make sure you end up on the right side of that divide?

Humans will be useful only when they do jobs that machines can’t do, and, at least for now, creative thinking and sensing emotion are still beyond the grasp of robot programmers. In fact, it might be useful to think like a hacker: What’s the best way to frustrate a computer? To throw a monkey wrench into an otherwise predictable process? Those kinds of tasks are the hardest to program.

The Oxford study puts this concept in academic language: It calls them “engineering bottlenecks.” You should think of them as opportunity. For example, it’s easy for a machine to ring up your purchases and take your money. It’s much harder to sense from your facial expression that you haven’t found something you want, and help you find it in the store.

Translation: Find an engineering bottleneck, and get good at it.

The Oxford study ranked 702 professions from most to least robot-proof. Near the top of the safe list are plenty of medical-oriented professions: therapists, dentists, audiologists. Elementary school teachers are (thankfully) there, too, as well as some physical jobs, like occupational therapists or mechanics.   

But if you sit at a desk all day, Oxford has bad news for you: Tax preparers, insurance claim adjusters, loan officers, credit analysts, budget analysts and title examiners are among the most at-risk. (If it helps ease the blow, telemarketers don’t have much of a future, either. )

You can take a peek at the list (start on page 57), but you should already have some idea of how automate-able your job is. If you can make something from nothing, your creativity will carry you through the coming disruption. But if your job is just to move around things others have made, it’s time to stretch those creative muscles.

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