21st century career survival skills

AI-related technologies are already replacing white-collar positions

Increasing job insecurity in the 21st century

Manufacturing automation began with the introduction of simple pneumatic and hydraulic assembly line systems in the early 20th century. Since the turn of the 21st century, we’ve experienced the rapid emergence of AI-enhanced robots in industry, further accelerating the disappearance of manufacturing jobs that began in the last half of the 20th century.

Because new generation computers take only a few seconds to digest all the information that students get during a full eight years of high school and college (eventually forgetting 97%, by one estimate)–it should come as no surprise that AI-related technologies are already replacing white-collar positions. And this is only the beginning…

Can formal education meet the challenge?

This raises several questions–

  • What kind of skills do we, as professionals, need to remain ‘hirable’ in the longer term?
  • A related question–what kind of formal higher education do we need that won’t be quickly outdated by AI-related systems and devices? Universities have been grappling with this issue. 

When I earned my degrees decades ago from three well-respected universities years ago, it was amazingly affordable. On the downside, there was little integration between curricula/’disciplines.’ Business courses, in particular, were segregated from the liberal arts. Unfortunately, this old departmental structure is still the standard.

Two schools of thought now dominate how best to move forward– 

  • The first is that higher education should continue to provide students with the tools they need to accurately discern and act upon valid information, to be flexible and creative in ways that computers (some argue) never can be. Fareed Zakaria takes this position in his new book, “In Defense of a Liberal Education.”
  • The second is that education needs to be more practical, more business-oriented; that education should focus on the real world and its entrepreneurial opportunities and challenges.

I don’t believe that these two positions are necessarily in conflict. In Part II of this article, I’ll hone in on the ‘cross disciplinary’ skills that we all need as professionals.

Differences between human and silicon-based intelligence

The computational capacity of the human brain still far exceeds that of any computer. Biological models of the brain posit 225 million billion interactions between all types of brain cells.

Most biologists/IT luminaries agree that our brains are flexible and creative in ways that computers aren’t and perhaps never will be. How so? The human brain has a complex, fluid analogue structure; multifaceted electrochemical synaptic connectivity (far more nuanced than IT-based electrical logic gates); parallel, distributed functioning; highly complex, non-linear memory retrieval; and, a capacity for self-repair. 

Work-life survival skills

Formal education soon gives way to life-long learning, an imperative for career survival. To overcome the twin challenges of increasing work insecurity and income inequality, successful 21st century professionals need to have broad practical knowledge and cultivate the insight required to meet new challenges as they arise.

In other words, occupations requiring sophisticated communications skills linked with specific expertise offer the most secure paths to career stability. (The majority of such careers require face-to-face interaction and so can’t easily be off-shored).

Such professions include a broad range of high-to low-level healthcare industry jobs, ranging from physicians to nursing home aides. More secure jobs in other industries encompass automobile dealership service managers, occupational therapists, postal service mail carriers, electricians, plumbers, speech pathologists, criminal investigators, and aerospace engineers. Looking towards 2020, growth is predicted in renewable energy, next generation manufacturing, augmented reality, robots and (of course) artificial intelligence, nanotech/biotech, social services and education.

Among IT positions, cyber security jobs are the fastest growing. Software engineers and other tech professionals with proven marketing skills will also be in demand. Regardless the continued threat of off-shoring, IT is still projected to outpace overall job growth.

The value of a cross-curriculum higher education

Only a small percentage of university students go on to earn PhDs, the ‘union card’ for entering the specialized, ‘discipline’-based world of academia. The vast majority of students, even in our highest ranking Ivy League institutions, get a BA/BS and then move into private sector jobs.

In a May 5, 2015 statement, Sean Kelley, chair of the General Education Review Committee, said that a Harvard education should give students “an art of living in the world.” Again, this translates into a greater emphasis on cross-departmental studies with focus on the gritty challenges and opportunities of the real world.

At the same time, online platforms like Open Yale and Coursera are automating some of the nation’s best higher education courses–via video streaming and online materials, greatly expanding options for life-long learning. –I highly recommend you go online and explore these and other online educational platforms. Kahn Academy (khanacademy.org), for example, is world-renowned for its outstanding free STEM courses.