Last week I was asked to deliver a keynote address as part of the Ministerial Programme at MWC19 in Barcelona on the jobs of the future and the rise of the digital citizen. Together with an esteemed group of panellists, we shared our thoughts on the role of technology, specifically AI, machine learning and automation, on the jobs market.
Chaired masterfully by Mohammad Chowdhury of PwC, we first heard from Isabelle Durant, Deputy Secretary General, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). She noted that while globalization – including a phenomenal expansion of trade – has helped lift millions out of poverty, not nearly enough people have benefited, and tremendous challenges remain.
Before our session, Isabel and I discussed how technology is starting to commoditise white-collar jobs. This resonates with the research outlined in David Nordfors’ and Vint Cerf’s book ‘The People Centered Economy: The New Ecosytem of Work’, to which I recently contributed.
In it they state if white-collar jobs are commoditised there will be more competition for lower skilled jobs. Indicators include the steady reduction in the inclusion of disabled and old people in the workforce since the start of the Internet era (before which, there was an upwards trend).
This is clearly a significant warning sign, and reminiscent of the industrial revolution where swift changes in technology led to the automation of agriculture and crafts, obliterating old jobs in homes and fields and creating new ones in factories. It led to Marx and Engels writing The Communist Manifesto, which of course plunged billions of people into misery and gave rise to numerous dictatorships with dysfunctional economies.
It’s well worth a read.
Back in Barcelona, I reminded everyone that while the industrial revolution saw technology impact manual labour (hands), and machine learning and AI are rapidly replicating our intellectual abilities (head), fortunately humans still have the advantage when it comes to intuition and emotional intelligent (hearts)!
Mohammad then chaired a wide-ranging panel discussion featuring Anny Pinto, Group Data Privacy Officer, Adecco Group; Rose Stuckey Kirk, Chief Corporate Social Responsibility Officer, Verizon; Alexandra Badenoch, Group Executive Transformation and People, Telstra; and Kuan Moon Yuen, CEO Consumer Singapore and Group Chief Digital Officer at Singtel.
They all shared examples of really impactful practice. Rose outlined how Verizon is deploying network infrastructure and a digital curriculum into disadvantaged schools in the US and how seriously it sees the need to leave nobody behind.
Anny talked about how Adecco is using technology including machine learning and humans as well as culture to iron out bias, while Alex discussed the challenge of immigration and importing urgently-in-demand skills vs. reskilling the local workforce. She reminded us there are 44 thousand software defined network engineers in India and only a few thousand in Australia. Training local people can take up to three years. When you’re a business that needs to scale up, you have to recruit from the pools of skilled workforces globally at the same time as investing in grassroots skills locally.
Given the political landscape (particularly in the UK and across mainland Europe), this presents its own challenges. I still vividly recall my first experiences with far-right groups and racism when I moved to the UK as a six year old. Back in the late 60s and 70s, the UK required an influx of doctors and nurses to serve the NHS. At the time, the relevant government departments couldn’t get the balance right by investing enough in education and reskilling of the local workforce.
Kuan Moon Yuen of Singtel went on to highlight the enlightened approach in Singapore where the government is opening up immigration for in-demand skills while paying companies to reskill their existing staff. The most impactful moment for me was learning that the government is also paying the salaries of employees during the time they are in training. This balance between local skills investment, companies and industry and immigration has to be the right (and obvious) answer.
I strongly believe corporates and governments have to work better together to reskill white-collar workers in particular. This has to happen in complete sync with opening up immigration to hugely in-demand talent. If these things don’t link up with proper investment, we could see history repeat itself, only this time, because it’s a technology-led, and therefore exponential revolution, we will either see history repeat itself exponentially for good, or exponentially for bad.
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