While advances in technology have introduced exciting new innovations, from virtual reality to self-driving cars, there has been increasing fear that automation may irreversibly damage the job market. That fear is understandable: A recent study by McKinsey found that, although less than 5% of occupations consist entirely of tasks that can be fully automated using current technology, for about 60% of occupations, at least one third of tasks can be automated. The study suggests that jobs involving repetitive tasks in predictable work environments or processing of data will be the first to become automated, while jobs involving working with people or performing tasks in less predictable environments well be more secure from automation.

Although the concept of automation often brings up the image of a self-checkout lane or of a robot performing manual labor, the reality is more complex. Automation frequently relies on a combination of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics. While AI can replace human decision-making using a data-driven approach, robotics can replace physical human tasks. When these two qualities are combined, automation has the potential to disrupt a large portion of the workforce. It already plays a large role in the manufacturing industry, and it is becoming increasingly involved in decision making for businesses. Because automation is frequently cheaper and more efficient than hiring employees, it is a sought after in many industries.

Compared to other jobs, skilled trade jobs are some of the safest in the age of automation. Robots don’t have the dexterity or the fine motor control to compete with human workers, a characteristic that is unlikely to change soon. Skilled trade professionals must be able to perform a wide range of physical motions and adapt to a variety of technical challenges, a role that robots cannot fulfill by simply executing repetitive motions. AI and robotics may excel at making data-based decisions and performing mechanical motions in a controlled environment, but skilled trade professions require a flexibility that exceeds what we are currently able to implement.

Historically, technology has caused employment to shift and change, but it has also created new jobs. Automation is no different. In fact, one study by Deloitte found that, while 800,000 jobs were eliminated by automation technologies, another 3.5 million jobs were created. Although it is difficult to predict exactly what jobs the future of automation will create, the ability to maintain and operate machines is one still wholly relegated to people. As automation becomes increasingly common, there will be a greater number of machines in need of repair and maintenance. In short, as long as there are machines, there will likely be a need for skilled trade professionals to repair them. That is not a job that automation will be prepared to take on anytime soon.

There is already a shortage of skilled trade professionals in the workforce. As these jobs are relatively secure against automation, and may in fact experience job growth because of it, skilled trade professionals will likely remain a large part of the workforce. In the age of automation, skilled trade jobs may be the professions of the future.

Publication date: 8/03/2018