How can we skill up to cope with automation?

Automation poses a threat to many jobs - but new roles will be created and different skill sets required
Gary McDonald Business Editor

DESPITE more than 420,000 jobs in Northern Ireland, ranging from typists to bankers, at risk of being replaced by technology in the next 10 years, automation also provides significant opportunities to "reskill and reconfigure" the workforce.

That's according to an Armagh-born Oxford University scientist Jonathan Downing, co-author of an academic paper called 'Future of Skill: Employment in 2030'.

And Downing will outline his thinking at a major conference in the Belfast Waterfront later this month, which will explain to more than 300 delegates how ambitious business leaders and their organisations can thrive in the new age of automation.

The 'Future Of Work in Northern Ireland Solutions Summit' on Wednesday February 28 is run by Connect (part of Catalyst Inc), whose recent index of the region's knowledge economy (it is made up of sectors like pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, telecoms, digital media, computing, advanced electronics, aerospace, medical devices and IT services) laid bare the threat of automation.

While the report acknowledges that the north's knowledge economy is the second fastest growing in the UK behind Scotland, it claims 423,000 jobs could be taken over by robots, so to counter that the region must create 80,000 high-value knowledge economy jobs by 2030 and produce better products than anyone else in the world.

Downing, who attended St Patrick's Grammar in Armagh, currently works at the Department of Engineering Science at the University of Oxford and conducts research in information science, data mining and artificial intelligence.

The theme of his keynote address to next week's Belfast summit is "How do we re-skill Northern Ireland talent to thrive in the new world of work?" in which he will share the findings of his latest research and apply this to the local business environment.

Downing - who shares much of his thinking with that of Elon Musk, chief executive and lead designer of SpaceX, the a US company developing space launch vehicles (and who before that set up internet payment company PayPal) - will explore three key questions: What are the jobs that will be created? What skills will thrive in the new world of work? How will companies and government need to evolve talent development, through life long learning and education?

His 'Future of Skill: Employment in 2030' study takes an entirely new approach to forecasting employment and skill demands in the US and UK. In contrast to many recent headlines, the study finds that many jobs today will still be in demand by 2030 and beyond.

But while jobs may remain, the skills needed for success are changing.

For the first time ever, researchers combined diverse human expertise with active machine learning to produce a more nuanced view of future employment trends. Using this innovative approach, the study forecasts that only one in five workers are in occupations that face a high likelihood of decline.

The research also forecasts one in 10 people are highly likely to experience a rise in demand for their job. The remaining roughly 70 per cent of workers are in jobs where there is greater uncertainty about the future: these workers can boost their prospects if they can invest in the right skills.

Across both the US and the UK, the occupations forecast to most likely experience a rise in employment are associated with education, health care and wider public sector occupations.

Creative, digital, design, and engineering occupations are also found to have bright outlooks in both countries. Decline in employment is forecast to take place in occupations related to transportation and traditional manufacturing.

Knowledge areas such as English language, history, philosophy and administration and management are all generally associated with occupations forecast to see a rise in workforce share. By contrast, STEM-related knowledge areas such as science and technology design will find use only in particular occupations.

Downing says: "The skills forecast to be in higher future demand include social perceptiveness, active learning, active listening, judgment, and decision making. In addition, cognitive skills such as fluency of ideas, originality, and oral expression are forecast to increase in demand - whereas physical abilities such as stamina, depth perception, are forecast to decline.

"Previous studies which have looked at the future of work tend to focus on how automatable or not an occupation is. Our research is distinguished from those previously students by focusing on skills.

"Skills is something that whatever job you're in there's something that you can do about. And if you invest in the right skills you can leave yourself in a better place to benefit from the opportunities of the future."

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