How to avoid a technology unemployment backlash

One of the better futurologists around, Thomas Frey, in an interesting look at the future of employment. I've got pretty mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I agree with his predictions around the future of employment. Frey's work in this area is something that's had a strong influence on my own thinking. He points out for example, that:

"In March, when Facebook announced the $2 billion acquisition of Oculus Rift, they not only put a giant stamp of approval on the technology, but they also triggered an instant demand for virtual reality designers, developers, and engineers. Virtual reality professionals were nowhere to be found on the list of hot skills needed for 2014, but they certainly will be for 2015."

This kind of thing is going to happening across the board, in a number of different industries. This has major implications for employment, since universities (with their 5-6 year specialised degrees) can't train people fast enough in time to handle these rapid skill shifts. The worry is that as you start outsourcing jobs that were previously done by humans to robots, new skills won't come online quick enough and you'll end up with a technology 'backlash.' So far so good...


Where I disagree however, is with Frey's proposed solution to all of this, which he thinks comes in the form of 'micro-colleges' which can 're-skill' people in the shorter time frames necessary. However, as most labour economists will tell you, re-skilling is a lot harder than this article makes out. That's because recessions create structural unemployment. Once people are out of work for more than a few months, many of them get lost in a permanent cycle of unemployment, no longer able to get back on the ladder regardless of how many well meaning government training or re-skilling programs are run. You can't just train an auto-engineer in a few months to be a coder - and where's the funding to do that kind of thing going to come from anyway?

In other words - there's a major potential problem looming here as we get technology-induced unemployment, but the way to fix it isn't more of the same (ire-skilling). Instead, I'd say we have to start looking for solutions in the way new generations of students are taught at university. What's clear is that 3-4 year specialised degrees just don't cut it any more in a world where you current skill set could be obsolete by the time you graduate. And we also need to start thinking about transformations to the way people work in general - perhaps a shift away from the specialisation that's dominated workplace culture for the last century, and a move back towards people with skills applicable to a wide range of problems.

Of course what that means for the existing generation of people employed in the modern workplace isn't clear. The sooner governments and businesses start engaging with these questions the better prepared they're going to be when this becomes a real issue in the next few years.