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How to keep your job in a world of automation

Nicole Goodkind
Nicole Goodkind

Nearly half of all jobs in the United States-- 47%-- are at risk of being replaced by some sort of automation. From cashiers to headhunters to stock analysts, all sorts of jobs are at risk. So how do you stay relevant as an employee when machines and robots are doing more and more of the work?

“The way to think about this is not to ask ‘what is it computers cannot do?’ because every time we try to answer that question we get it wrong.” says Geoff Colvin, Senior Editor-at-Large at Fortune, who tackles the question in his book, Humans Are Underrated. “The question to ask is ‘what will we insist we do with and for other human beings even if a robot can do it?’” Those will be the high-value skills in years to come. Skills like social sensitivity and empathy will be esteemed, as will the ability to collaborate and build relationships.

Sales jobs are a great example, says Colvin. “A lot of selling is being automated.  It’s called programmatic buying. However, think about selling a power turbine that costs $4 million. Think about selling a sponsorship of a whole season of a television show. Those are only going to be done by human beings.”

These skills, says Colvin, favor women. The number of men between the ages of 25 and 54 who aren’t working has increased significantly since the 1980s. Men hold the majority of positions in construction and factory line-work, jobs that are most likely to be automated. Women dominate in positions like nursing and teaching, which depend on interpersonal relations.

 “For a long time the rising power of technology seemed to favor male engineers and entrepreneurs, but now, ironically, the trend is reversing as technology increasingly takes over all but the most deeply and essentially human roles,” writes Colvin. Women have more value in a working world that favors empathy, collaboration and relationships.

Men can level the playing field says Colvin, and higher education will pay off. But the conventional advice to major in a STEM subject (science, technology, engineering, math) isn’t quite as strong. “Being an engineer is great,” he says. “But you’re not a high-value engineer unless you also bring the human skills. You have to be able to understand the customer experience and collaborate with other people on the team, those are the high-value engineers.”