FEATURE24 September 2018

Job of the future

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Jobs are the crux of our economic and social lives, but automation is disrupting employment. A report from Nesta models the skills and occupations that will be needed in the future. By Jane Bainbridge

Job of the future

What will work look like in 15 years’ time? A dominant narrative is one of jobs being taken over by robots and lost to automation, leaving swathes of the workforce without the right skills, stranded in unemployment.

Lists are published frequently, showing which jobs are future-proofed and those professions are most ‘at risk’. Invariably, there’s a common, negative thread – focusing on all that will be lost, and pondering how society might cope with hordes of people devoid of purpose and earning power. These studies often exist in isolation and rarely look at the effect of automation on job creation, failing to consider macro trends such as globalisation, ageing and other impacts on the economy.

Innovation foundation Nesta decided to approach the future of work from a slightly different tangent for its Future of Skills: Employment in 2030 report. It used a “novel and comprehensive method” to map how employment is likely to change, and the implications of this for skills. Its aim was to highlight different occupations and point out potential reskilling priorities. 

Hasan Bakhshi, Nesta’s executive director, creative economy and data analytics – and one of the report’s authors – says: “Fears about the job-destruction effects of new technologies are not new. Earlier generations of machines, however, were limited to routine activities, based on well-defined, repetitive procedures. This time, new technologies are mimicking the human body and mind in increasingly subtle ways, encroaching on many non-routine activities, such as legal writing and medical diagnoses, as well as truck driving and security guarding.”

Even so, Bakhshi says it’s important to remember that new technologies boost employment when the profits generated are spent in the economy, and that automation leads to new jobs. “Historically, new technologies have eradicated some jobs in some industries, but – in the long run – the economy’s employment-to-population ratio has grown during most of the 19th and 20th centuries,” he adds.

So what skills are needed for future-proofing careers? There has often been a dual discourse on this: the need for science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), plus analytical expertise, as our jobs become less analogue, but – conversely – more human skills that robots can’t do, around relationships and communications. 

21st Century skills

Bakhshi says high future-demand occupations will need “a mix of social skills, such as social perceptiveness, instruction and coordination, as well as cognitive skills –originality, fluency of ideas and active learning – a mix that is sometimes described as 21st-century skills”.

Automation is, of course, affecting market research and Nesta’s report shows that highly routine occupations are most at risk. “In the UK, customer service occupations – which includes market research interviewers,  as well as call- and contact-centre jobs – are highly likely to shrink in the workforce. Market research analysts have rosier prospects, but are still likely to become less important. 

"Market research directors, in contrast, could see growth in the workforce," says Bakhshi.

The methodology behind the report involved: trends analysis – looking at the drivers of change and the interactions that are expected to shape industry structures and labour markets in 2030; foresight workshops, involving panels of experts debating the future prospects of 10 occupations and then using active learning and algorithms to label occupations; machine learning, to predict for all occupations based on the previous work; and analysis, to interpret the results. 

“Our methodology reflects three insights,” says Bakhshi. “First, there is a high degree of persistence in the structure of the workforce, suggesting that looking at the history of employment is a good starting point for predicting its future. Second, the US and UK economies are experiencing structural change that, theory suggests, will have major consequences for employment, so naïve extrapolation paints a distorted picture of prospects. Third, occupations involve a complex configuration of knowledge, skills and abilities, meaning our predictive models must be sophisticated. 

“We used a foresight methodology, combining qualitative human insight informed by historical-trend analysis, to train a machine-learning classifier of jobs according to their expected demand prospects in 2030.”

The report found that education, healthcare, and wider public sector occupations are likely to grow. Its model predicts hypothetical occupations that are “almost certain” to increase in workforce share. In the US, there are four – 100 year counsellor, aerospace engineer, green construction worker and care worker. For the UK, the model predicts two – immersive experience designer and restaurant owner. “One of the occupations obviously has high levels of creativity and combines traditional craft- and tech-based skills; the other fits hospitality and sales occupations, and requires originality, flexibility and management skills. These occupations seem intuitive to me, and reflect deep truths about the future strengths of the UK economy,” says Bakhshi.

He believes with the right skills investments – people can take advantage of how the labour market will change, and protect themselves against inevitable disruptions.  

However, Bakhshi points out that governments and educators have their work cut out to adapt to the realities of the future labour market. 

“There are key areas of the workforce where those charged with investing in the nation’s talent urgently need to shift direction. But the starting point is the recognition that society can do something about the problem,” he says.