Dean Barber

There is a Future for Work

In Corporate Site Selection and Economic Development on September 23, 2018 at 2:23 pm

Probably the worst speech that I ever gave was on a topic that most people would find interesting and important. And yet I managed to make it unappealing and boring. Trust me, it took work on my part.

About a year ago, I was invited to speak to a group of economic developers associated with the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, which includes 10 counties in the metro area. Jeff Seymour, now executive vice president of economic development with the Chamber, and I decided beforehand that I should speak on the future of work.

How I could muff a speech on one of the hottest topics facing us today — how technologies like automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence are shaping how we work, where we work, and the skills we need to work – made me realize that presentation is every bit as important as content.

A Flat Failure

Mind you, I had good content, but my presentation (simply reading text that I had composed) was sorely lacking. I realized halfway through the speech that I was not connecting with my audience, but I still had to plunge ahead. Afterward, I told Jeff, “Well, that went over like a dead cat.”

It’s interesting to note that Abraham Lincoln felt that his Gettysburg Address was a complete flop. It is now viewed as one of the most poignant, powerful, and inspirational words ever spoken by a president.

Upon sitting down after giving his speech, detecting the muted, polite applause, Lincoln turned to his friend Ward Hill Lamon and said, “Lamon, that speech won’t scour. It is a flat failure.”

Save Sinners Quickly

Looking back on my Oklahoma City effort, I now realize how right Mark Twain was when he said, “Few sinners are saved after the first twenty minutes of a sermon.” In short, it you don’t grab your audience’s attention in the first minute or two, you’re sunk.

Somehow, I managed to make a fascinating subject a snoozer by droning on and on about possible scenarios on the future of work that could play out in the next 20 years, each reflecting whether there will be more or less work, and whether work will exist in the form of jobs or fragmented into tasks or “gigs.”

People do not want to hear that it may be this or it may be that. They want a degree of certainty. They want answers. And while I do not always have all the answers, in keeping with the tradition of consulting, I should imply as much.

Something You Don’t Hear Often

This might come as a bit of a shock, but I have changed my mind. How often do you hear that from a politician or a consultant?

When I first started pondering, writing and speaking on the future of work, my views were consistently dark. While I never believed that robots would ultimately kill us all, ala The Terminator, I wondered aloud in front of audiences about the role and relevancy of people in the future. What will we do when the machines will be able do it all for us?

Two books by MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, left deep impressions upon me.

The first, Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution Is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy, confirmed what most of us sensed was happening – that we are in the midst of a technological revolution that is radically redefining the word of work.

We see businesses increasingly substituting “smart” machines for people, and with the rapid pace of advancement of digital technologies, we wonder if anyone can keep up.

In their follow-up book, The Second Machine AgeBrynjolfsson and McAfee wrote about the amount of digital information being created and how relatively cheap devices are continually talking to each other and doing things once considered possible only in the realm of science fiction.

Will We Be Needed?

Robots can now scan and identify all the objects in a strange room, allowing them to perform a series of complex physical tasks. Computers can not only read and grade essays, they can write them. The thought of all this frankly scared me. Would there be any work left for us to do in the future? Would people be needed for anything?

My fears were in keeping with that of British economist John Maynard Keynes, who coined the term “technological unemployment” back in the 1930s. Keyes predicted that the displacement of workers by machines would usher in an era of shorter work weeks and increased leisure.

But I have since changed my mind. I no longer believe that advances in digital technologies will reduce the overall demand for labor. I now believe that new technologies will simply shift demands to different kinds of work. Yes, certain jobs will go by the wayside, but new ones will be created, as they always have.

Two reports out this past week confirm as much – that technology will create more jobs than it destroys.

An Industry Evolves

The first report is industry specific. According to data compiled by Bloomberg, of the 13 publicly traded automakers with at least 100,000 workers at the end of their most-recent fiscal year, 11 had more employees compared with year-end 2013.

The automakers had a combined 3.1 million employees or 11% more than four years earlier. Keep in mind that industrial robots have made their biggest mark in the automotive industry, and yet companies continue to hire people in research and development.

As the industry evolves, more people are being hired for software positions than hardware roles to prepare for a future in which more vehicles are communicating with each other and their surroundings.

More Created Than Eliminated

The second report originates with the World Economic Forum, which holds that technological advances in the workplace stands to create almost double the number of jobs for the global economy by the middle of the next decade than it puts at risk of being replaced.

According to the WEF, about 133 million jobs globally could be created with the help of rapid technological advances in the workplace over the next decade, compared with 75 million that could be displaced.

The WEF report confirms what many economists and researchers have been saying — that new technologies have the capacity to both disrupt (destroy) and create new ways of working, similar to previous periods of economic history such as the Industrial Revolution.

Back then, the advent of steam power, electricity, and the internal combustion engine, helped spur the creation of new jobs and the development of the middle class. The the rise of artificial intelligence in the workplace will follow along the same vein.

It means the robots will not be killing us while we lounge around the pool sipping Mai Tais. It means there is a future of work. I hope that makes you feel better.

One More Thing

I will be speaking on the benefits of site certification this coming Thursday, Sept. 27, in a free webinar at 11 a.m. CDT hosted by my friends at the Golden Shovel Agency. I should warn you that I will delve into soil borings, which is pretty racy stuff.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dean Barber is the principal of Barber Business Advisors, an economic development and corporate location consulting firm based in Dallas. Visit BBA at barberadvisors.com to learn more. Follow Dean on Twitter @DeanWBarber

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