Supervisors hear stark take on robots and workforce of the future

Danielle Jester/GateHouse Media California
Siskiyou County Office of Education Adult Education Director Heather Stafford speaks to the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, May 1, 2018 about workforce trends in and outside Siskiyou County.

What will happen to workers displaced by robots in the next 20 years was one of the subjects discussed in a presentation during last week’s Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors meeting.

Adult Education Director Heather Stafford of the Siskiyou County Office of Education talked about workforce trends in and outside of the county. She noted that the information could be a bit intimidating and intense, especially when looking at the rise of technology and the displacement of human labor.

One startling workforce prediction that Stafford listed posits, “By 2025, one in three jobs will be robo-replaced, displacing 140,000,000 workers.” Though some of those jobs have not yet been created, Stafford explained, her presentation did focus, in part, on what will happen to workers as the world becomes more automated.

A chart titled, “Probability Robots Will Take Your Job in Next 20 Years” also offered a stark take on the future. Ranked most likely to be replaced by robots were telemarketers, followed by accountants and auditors, retail salespersons, technical writers, real estate agents, and word processors and typists. At the bottom of the list, with near certain job security in the face of machine takeover, are chemical engineers, clergy, athletic trainers, dentists and recreational therapists.

Freelance workers and job creation

On the bright side, Stafford said, we may be on the brink of the largest period of job creation in the history of humanity. Some reasons for this are that location will no longer play as important a role because so many workers will be freelancers; it is estimated that by 2020, 50 percent of the US workforce will be comprised of freelancers.

Other driving forces behind job creation include the rising percentage of college degrees and the fact that people are changing careers periodically rather than staying in the same place for their entire working life.

Stafford said it is predicted that millennials will make up 50 percent of the workforce by 2020. She conceded that millennials often get a bad rap, but explained some of the generation’s characteristics, including that they are motivated by meaningful work, are tech savvy, have a hunger for learning and are task oriented rather than time oriented.

Gig economy

Stafford touched upon the shift toward a “gig economy,” which is defined as “an environment in which temporary positions are common and organizations contract with independent workers for short-term engagements.” In the gig economy, she described, work is project-based and people with unique skillsets come together to produce an outcome, then take their skills to the next project.

According to Stafford’s presentation, the gig economy is also characterized by workers using portfolios rather than resumes, and the existence of virtual teams that use technology to collaborate across time, space and organizational boundaries.

Rural barriers to upward mobility

Another shift has been taking place in the US for over 100 years – that of populations moving from rural to urban areas. Based on information from the US Census Bureau, 54.4 percent of the US population resided in rural areas in 1910. By 2010, those figures had changed dramatically: 80.7 percent of the country’s population was urban dwelling, and only 19.3 percent lived rurally.

Unfortunately for rural areas like Siskiyou County, a number of barriers to upward mobility exist. Stafford’s presentation called these barriers “symptoms of rural poverty.” They include mental health issues, low wages, lack of skilled workforce, limited educational opportunities, limited access to health care and limited local businesses.

Benefits of adult education in rural areas

Stafford noted the high value of combining technical skills, “soft skills” – such as good communication, leadership and problem solving – and experience. She specified that community colleges can assist by recognizing that small businesses are asking for new-hire soft skills training, supporting the infusion of entrepreneurial skills for students across all programs and providing real world experience learning to reinforce technical and soft skills training.

While all of this information can feel like a lot to process, Stafford said, bringing awareness of the changing world and workforce to Siskiyou County will help the rural area succeed in the changing climate.