Published on 2020/01/22

Robots Are Coming, But Hybrid Skills Will Keep Humans in Control

Choosing to focus exclusively on human or technical skills, rather than adopting a both-and approach, will not prepare learners for the realities of the changing labor market.

There was a mock commercial on Saturday Night Live a few years ago, featuring actor Sam Waterston selling insurance in case of robot attacks. “Robots are everywhere,” he warned, “and they eat old people’s medicine for fuel.” Fortunately, he said, “Old Glory Insurance” covered senior citizens in case of an unexpected robot attack.

Of course it was meant to be silly, but the fake commercial did play on a growing unease among working Americans trying to preserve their jobs in the face of automation and artificial intelligence. Whether through parody or from the mouths of politicians and pundits, workers are regularly reminded that their current ways of working are at risk as more job tasks become automated and more choices and ideas are left to algorithms.

The good news is that a better insurance policy can be found in education, particularly in programs that help students master a hybrid of human skills and technical knowledge. Debates over the future of higher education programs have raged of late, with some arguing that liberal arts programs lack long-term career prospects, are too costly and are too disconnected from the work students will actually be taking on after graduation. Nevertheless, skills associated with the liberal arts are those that cannot easily be automated: critical thinking, creativity, communication and emotional intelligence, to name a few.

Clearly, in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century, technical skills ranging from computer programming to engineering to medical science will be crucial in the workplace. But the debate over technical skills or human skills is off the mark. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences recently called the debate “a false choice.” Rather, what is needed is a both-and approach.

The World Economic Forum also recently highlighted that “purely technical occupations are expected to show a new demand for creative and interpersonal skills. For healthcare practitioners, for example, technological innovations will allow for increasing automation of diagnosis and personalization of treatments, redefining many medical roles towards translating and communicating this data effectively to patients.”

Today’s jobs require hybrid skills that bridge the human skills of the liberal arts with technical skills needed to be able to work with and understand the data, algorithms and automation of the workplace.

Some educators are actively embracing this both-and approach, such as the University of Cincinnati’s Co-op program. All UC students, regardless of major, have the opportunity to participate in this learn-earn-learn cycle of instruction throughout their undergraduate careers. Students in the full-time Co-op program complete three to five co-op terms, during which they spend 15 to 18 weeks at a time working full time in a professional setting learning and performing the same tasks as an entry level employee. There are also opportunities for students to engage in part-time co-op experiences, both on- and off-campus. Students working in on-campus co-op positions gain experience through meaningful on-campus work in partnership with campus departments, such as research centers and administrative offices. Other opportunities for work-based learning include project-based co-ops, service learning co-ops and international experiences. UC Co-op students list benefits including developing transferable skills, expanding professional relationships and having competitive advantages in hiring.

Of course, colleges and universities are not the only avenues for obtaining hybrid job skills. Organizations like i.c.stars are helping low-income adults in the Chicago area to develop technical and leadership skills, preparing them for jobs in information technology. i.c.stars places a high value on leadership skills as both the foundation of successful employment and as the cornerstone to building strong communities where their graduates live and work.

In San Francisco, ClimbHire provides training in Salesforce administration and leadership to the region’s “overlooked and hidden talent.” A major focus of ClimbHire’s program is on networking, communication, and building communities of professionals among participants and graduates, with graduates serving as mentors and teachers for future cohorts. Organizations like these recognize that technical skills alone are insufficient in being competitive on the job market and in being effective in new jobs. In the innovation-driven markets where i.c.stars and ClimbHire exist, human skills are requisite.

Strada Institute for the Future of Work published a report about these necessary human skills, Robot-Ready: Human+ Skills for the Future of Work. Working with the data analytics firm Emsi, the report highlighted that “human skills, like leadership, communication, and problem-solving, are among the most in-demand skills in the labor market.” Even in job postings for very technical positions in areas such as engineering and computer science, the abilities to problem solve and communicate solutions to problems are paramount.

The Robot-Ready report also described how liberal arts majors can break down barriers to job entry by better identifying and understanding their human skills while emphasizing targeted technical skills.

I would caution, however, against assuming that these are challenges only for liberal arts majors, who need to acquire better technical skills training in order to keep up with their peers in STEM fields. Rather, STEM majors are also well advised to acquire the human skills that have long been the purview of the liberal arts, social sciences and humanities.

Regardless of the kind of postsecondary education students pursue, specialization in technical skills training at the exclusion of complementary human skills attainment is an insurance policy that will not serve workers well—now or in the future. A both-and approach will help all of us to remain competitive, productive and adaptable throughout our working lives.

It’s unlikely that robots will be able to do all of those things for us in the future; if not, Old Glory Insurance is available.

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