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The One Thing That Threatens Workers the Most

·Senior Columnist
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Many labor experts believe there’s a troublesome “skills gap” in America: Too many workers who specialize in things companies no longer need, coupled with a shortage of workers qualified to do things companies actually do need.

So how can you tell if you’re one of the people about to fall into the gap? Economist Tyler Cowen, author of the new book Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation, suggests a simple formula for assessing your own vulnerability: Figure out whether you do work that complements what computers can do, or work that mimics what computers do and is likely to be made obsolete by the increasingly intelligent machines.

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Digital technology, of course, has already transformed many industries, including publishing, travel, manufacturing and retail, causing huge shifts in employment and even where people live. “A lot more is on the way,” Cowen tells me in the above video. One example he cites: autonomous, or self-driving, vehicles. “It seems they really work,” he says. “This will do away with truck drivers or people who do deliveries.”

At the same time, new jobs will emerge developing and producing the technology of the future, Cowen says. The catch, of course, is that workers displaced by new technology are rarely able to reinvent themselves in time to benefit from the same technology. So one person’s gain is somebody else’s loss, creating new classes of losers as well as winners.

Even after a grueling recession, Cowen foresees more wrenching change in the U.S. economy that will continue to hollow out the middle class and lower living standards for many.

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But he also sees many opportunities for Americans willing to get the skills that will be in demand in the future. After assessing your vulnerability to computers and also to cheaper foreign labor, Cowen urges people to add whatever technical skills they think will help them in their field, whether it’s manufacturing, office work, healthcare or something else. Community colleges and adult-education centers often offer relevant courses, but schools and even employers aren’t always great at predicting what you’ll need to know in your career in 5, 10 or 15 years. Your own research may be more valuable.

Some human skills are likely to remain important no matter how dominant computers become. Some examples: the ability to communicate effectively with people, manage them, motivate them and grab their attention. “There are a lot of things computers won’t be able to do any time soon,” Cowen says. The list is getting shorter, though.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.