Future of Education and Training in a World of Automation

A journalist was asking me about the future of automation, especially in terms of how we (society) should change in regards to training and education of workers. Below are my responses.

1) Do you consider your courses at CMU to be training a workforce for an increasingly automated world?

We don't explicitly gear our courses at CMU for training workforces. Generally, our courses are more about teaching high level concepts, methods, and skills. It's the same difference as learning how to program in Java and learning computer science with Java. The former focuses only on skills, while the latter focuses on bigger picture issues as well as the fundamentals.

2) Is the best way to train for "future jobs" truly in learning the mechanics of the machines that we rely on? Or is it perhaps better to train for truly complementary roles, human skills that a machines are far away from replicating?  (i.e. communications, design).
I would say that it's mostly for complementary roles. In my response to the next question, only a relatively few number of people are creating these automated systems, and they tend to require a lot of technical skills.

There will still be a need for maintaining and repairing these systems, but the whole point of automation is to reduce the number of people needed, so there will be some but not a lot of jobs here.

So the best strategy is to aim for skills that are hard to automate or even outsource. These would include skills that require high touch, lots of communication and interaction, and ones that require creative problem solving.

3) If the federal government prioritized preparing the U.S workforce for an increasingly automated future, which training/education programs should be funded? Specifically for an unskilled workforce such as professional drivers? Will vocation/trade jobs begin to disappear?

The kinds of jobs that are most likely to be automated are ones that are highly repetitive, predictable, and don't require a lot of creative thinking or problem solving. Note that automation doesn't necessary mean robots, it also includes touchscreens for ordering food or web services for streamlining self-service returns.

A logical step then is to focus on training programs that are less likely to be automated. Some examples might include teaching, plumbing, nursing, and social work. Many kinds of vocational jobs won't disappear, since many of these are custom one-off kinds of jobs that don't necessarily have the same patterns. For example, every plumbing problem is slightly different and requires problem solving skills to figure out the root cause, making it harder to fully automate.

In the much longer-term, I believe our society will need a New "New Deal" that offers a stronger safety net for all citizens. The problem with automation is that while it increases efficiency and decreases costs for customers, the money that used to flow to tens of thousands of workers shrinks to just a few hundred or dozens of people who are creating these automated systems. In the past, automation happened primarily for blue collar jobs, and at a slow enough rate that society could adapt. However, today, automation is happening for even some kinds of white collar jobs, and is happening faster and faster, hollowing out the American middle class.


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