3 Ways Technology Can Help Keep People in Work (Genevieve Ding)

We’ve heard it before: robots and AI are eating our jobs. New jobs will emerge, but we may not be equipped to do them. I’d written an overview of the issue here.

This week, Genevieve Ding gives an overview of how technology can help KEEP people in work, by mitigating job displacement. Gen speaks from a position of experience: over the past five years, she headed economic strategy in the Ministry of Finance, where her team introduced the SkillsFuture initiative in 2015. She currently works at the National Trade Union Congress (NTUC), where she is interacts with employers and workers to understand the employment landscape across the spectrum: old and young workers, blue collar and white collar jobs. She was previously in the Foreign Service for 4 years, and was posted to Beijing, reporting on all aspects of the Chinese economy.

Enjoy!

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Photo from ntuc.org.sg 

Technology and Job Displacement: Not a Foregone Conclusion

Auntie Sally is a union member at an electronics factory in Singapore producing wire bonds, the tiny wires in your mobile phone, tablet or step tracker that connect the semiconductor chip to its housing. A toothy lady with boundless energy and a knack for making you feel like her daughter, she has been in this job for 15 years. With no more than a primary school education, she began by operating the machines which make aluminium wire bonds, and has risen through the ranks to become a supervisor in her department. Recently, she was transferred to a new department, where she has to use software she does not understand.  Frustrated and under immense pressure, she feels lost and fears that she may soon be let go. Once fiercely proud, her sense of self tied up so closely to the value she used to provide at work is now deflating. Worse still, her company’s prospects are bleak because the process of wire bonding risks being entirely replaced by advances in materials engineering.

There have been many involved government policy discussions on how rapid technological disruptions and the progress of artificial intelligence will inevitably displace workers like Auntie Sally along the entire value chain, hollowing out the lower and middle classes.  The pace of disruptive technologies makes it ever more difficult to train workers fast enough to transition to new jobs and sectors.

Underlying this is a deep, visceral and very real fear that the diligent, dutiful employee has of losing his job. The US elections and Brexit last year and the ongoing protests against Uber in part reflect this widespread, deep-rooted fear. The sheer potential and associated impact of disruptive technology could trigger the same fears that offshoring has, driving an even deeper divisive cleave between proponents who are able to extract benefit from it, and those who fear they will lose out.

There is plenty of literature on how we can partner technology to improve productivity that make jobs easier, but risk displacing workers, whether by hovercraft technology to reduce the need for painful manual work; collaborative robots to increase productivity, data mining programmes such as Verifi and Margin Matrix that perform time-consuming routine research and drafting so lawyers can focus on more complex and meaningful work; or smart manufacturing systems that use predictive data analytics to increase yield rates and optimise operations in manufacturing.

In a technologically-enabled nation, can technology be used to tackle some of the very problems arising from its development? So that workers are not mere spectators or recipients of help, but active players with a call to action, and who can see the reality of a better, more hopeful life?  Workers will be more invested in the adoption of emerging technology if they can see themselves jointly sharing in progress.

How can technology can play a role in mitigating job displacements and making workers more valuable? I suggest three ways.

1. Helping companies identify their skills needs

As technology evolves, the skills required in the workplace to enable companies to keep ahead are evolving more quickly than ever. The biggest challenge for the labour movement or employment agencies is how keep up with the rapid change in the skills profile of their workforce.

What was somewhat surprising to me when speaking with companies, is that they too are often feeling around in the dark for skills they will need in the future, before suddenly realising that they’re behind — leaving too short a runway to train workers. Data science for instance was a skill which was suddenly hot, prompting companies to scramble to develop expertise. But for some time many didn’t really understand how data science would add real value and what specific skills were required, so job descriptions for data scientists had grandiose expectations looking for “unicorns” that were almost impossible to fill.

Technology has a role to play in helping both government and companies, especially smaller ones, better anticipate the changing skillsets needed to remain competitive.  Data analysis has the potential to trawl through thousands of online job descriptions to fish out skills that are trending in particular sectors, or even identify emerging skills across sectors which may give rise to new niche areas of growth. Once identified, companies are better able to start training workers as soon as possible before their old skills become outmoded.

2. Matching skills, eliminating biases

Just as Tinder and Coffee Meets Bagel help people find their other halves based on users’ preferences and profiles for a better fit, finding good matches between skills and skills in demand is essential to helping workers.

Algorithms, not unlike those that help you find a compatible date, have the potential to match job seekers to jobs based on skills, interests, aspirations, and cultural fit. At the same time, algorithms can help workers identify skills gaps in their resumes based on the skills most in demand or trending in job descriptions, helping them to identify training opportunities.

Digital labour platforms like LinkedIn or CareerBuilder also create more transparent job markets and disrupt previously closed labour markets by increasing workers’ access to a wider variety of jobs and employers’ access to a wider pool of job seekers, reducing the advantage of “old boys clubs”, often driven by wealth and connections.

The playing field is levelled even further by technology platforms that attenuate hiring biases such as paper qualifications and gender, by enabling testing for the specific aptitudes required on the job. Platforms like Codility and GitHub help employers seek out and test for quality of coding and development skills, not certifications.  Catalyst DevWorks’ Catalyst Talent Platform uses machine learning on thousands of variables from hundreds of thousands of individual engineer and developer candidates to identify innate capabilities and predict whether someone will be exceptional talent in the job, whether or not they have a degree or a good resume.

3. Real-time, real-world training

Lifelong learning is much easier said than done. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) have already democratised learning, providing easy access to countless new courses and possibilities. However, much of this learning remains theoretical and does not train or test  “on-the-job”, so it is less useful for industries such as manufacturing.

Even more depressingly, upskilling won’t get you a job. I’ve had the unenviable position of speaking to a electronics engineer Mr. Lee who was retrenched. In tears, he related how he tried to take professional courses in the biomedical sector, with hopes of entering what was then one of Singapore’s growth sectors. Despite his burnished qualifications, all the companies he approached felt that he didn’t have the job experience commensurate with someone else his age in the industry.

Virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR) open up new possibilities of providing “on-site” ,  “hands on”  training for workers and might provide a solution to learning that accelerates job transition and meaningful skills acquisition throughout one’s life.

In manufacturing for instance, AR smart glasses that overlay computer-generated graphics and real-time instructions can improve productivity without prior training. This will shorten the time required for onboarding new workers and help close skills gaps.

Significantly, these upskilling technologies can also help companies “test” out potential employees during the hiring process in a simulated environment, assuring them that the job seeker – even if, like Mr Lee, did not have prior work experience – can perform to standard. Real-time, real-world training with AR will also workers help existing workers learn continuously and at an accelerated speed, increasing organisational learning agility.

Why is this so difficult? The challenge of scale

Using technology to help mitigate the impact of job displacements can only be really effective however if we can adopt them at scale. This can be challenging.  For instance, identifying in-demand skills across sectors or on a national level, or skills matching through data analytics will be most robust if there is open access to large volumes of  job offerings on the demand side. Markets are more transparent the larger the source data.

However, much of this information is fragmented across various platforms and job portals–with a significant proportion of hiring done through personal referrals or headhunters. National job portals where all employers are required to list job openings with job descriptions and skills needed–such as Singapore’s national online Jobs Bank–would go some way to address this. Google for Jobs, which was recently launched, will also contribute to this. 

Technology will also affect various constituents to differentiated degrees.  Eliminating biases through Codility or GitHub for example is limited to skills that are more quantifiable and thus demonstrable on a platform. Less quantifiable skills such as learning agility or strategic thinking may not be as easily evaluated through mediated platforms.

Last, technologies such as VR and AR for training are most impactful if they can both be customised and scaled up. Cost constraints and access to these technologies in the near-term will limit their scalability. Addressing these challenges  in-depth is certainly worth a separate discussion.

Conclusion: Technology as a force for social resilience and collective progress

Challenges notwithstanding, by deliberately harnessing technology in these ways, we are negotiating a new narrative: one that empowers workers and shows them that they too have a stake in our collective progress. Technology no longer divides, but instead buttresses society’s resilience. It provides Auntie Sally a vision of progress that she can once again take pride in contributing to.

 

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