Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Which Jobs Will Survive the Robot Revolution?

MIT professor David Autor predicts which jobs will survive the next wave of robotic automation.

The key will be jobs that "combine technical skills with interpersonal interaction":
While many middle-skill jobs are susceptible to automation, others demand a mixture of tasks that take advantage of human flexibility. To take one prominent example, medical paraprofessional jobs — radiology technician, phlebotomist, nurse technician — are a rapidly growing category of relatively well-paid, middle-skill occupations. While these paraprofessions do not typically require a four-year college degree, they do demand some postsecondary vocational training.

These middle-skill jobs will persist, and potentially grow, because they involve tasks that cannot readily be unbundled without a substantial drop in quality. Consider, for example, the frustration of calling a software firm for technical support, only to discover that the technician knows nothing more than the standard answers shown on his or her computer screen — that is, the technician is a mouthpiece reading from a script, not a problem-solver. This is not generally a productive form of work organization because it fails to harness the complementarities between technical and interpersonal skills. Simply put, the quality of a service within any occupation will improve when a worker combines routine (technical) and nonroutine (flexible) tasks.

Following this logic, we predict that the middle-skill jobs that survive will combine routine technical tasks with abstract and manual tasks in which workers have a comparative advantage — interpersonal interaction, adaptability and problem-solving. Along with medical paraprofessionals, this category includes numerous jobs for people in the skilled trades and repair: plumbers; builders; electricians; heating, ventilation and air-conditioning installers; automotive technicians; customer-service representatives; and even clerical workers who are required to do more than type and file. Indeed, even as formerly middle-skill occupations are being “deskilled,” or stripped of their routine technical tasks (brokering stocks, for example), other formerly high-end occupations are becoming accessible to workers with less esoteric technical mastery (for example, the work of the nurse practitioner, who increasingly diagnoses illness and prescribes drugs in lieu of a physician). Lawrence F. Katz, a labor economist at Harvard, memorably called those who fruitfully combine the foundational skills of a high school education with specific vocational skills the “new artisans.”