When will technology replace your job or – are the soft skills now hard?

Written by: Jordan Tinney

Published On: December 14th 2014

Pay_and_display_ticket_machineI pull down into the underground parking lot that I know so well, I stop as I have hundreds of times and I push the button to take my ticket. The dispensing machine that I have used so often is dark with a simple sign that says to pull ahead and to take a ticket from one of the many machines on different floors. I realize what this means and I glance at the pay booth just ahead. It too is dark, no longer inhabited by the gentleman that took my tickets for years and who greeted me on so many mornings. His job is gone and as I pull ahead I spot one of the many new light blue machines waiting for my credit card and license plate to pay for my parking. Just one more example of technology taking away not just a job, but a human touch to this particular underground dwelling that is cold and grey.

But I get it. I accept that to pay someone to host a booth to take your ticket and pay can so easily be replaced by a machine. It’s a low skilled job, surely the time was near and you could see this coming.


A week later, I visit a dentist. A high tech office and I need to replace a crown. I am ready for the imprint, the temporary crown, and then the return visit for the real one after the lab has finely and professionally  crafted my new crown. Normally a process that takes a couple of weeks.

I sit in the chair, they get out a camera, do digital imaging while I watch and then in a combination of skill from the dentist and computing technology, they “print” my crown to the room next store. “Get outta here!” I say. The technician asks if I would like to see takes me to a small room in which 3 printers no larger than a decent home toaster oven are each busy. One is crafting my tooth from the selected block of porcelain (colour matched by the imaging as well).3d printer

Ten minutes later, I am sitting on the chair, it’s popped on, it’s perfect and I’m out the door. No temp, no wait, just one satisfied customer. But then my mind turns to wondering what happened to the lab technicians that used to do this work. I had visions of a high tech lab where a team of skilled professionals worked diligently at the miracles of modern dentistry. Not so much. They are gone as well, replaced by three printers, a skilled dentist and a cupboard full of small porcelain cubes.

I know and accept that technological advances will replace jobs. However I had visions of the low skill routine manual tasks being replaced and not what I perceived to be high skill, professional craft work. This challenged my thinking and so I did some research.

Oxford university published an amazing work looking at the potential risk to careers being replaced by technology in the coming years. In an analysis of 702 jobs from teachers to lawyers, to bartenders and fast food hosts, their ranking list is an extraordinary glimpse into just who may be outsourced and I suggest that in a read of the table at the end of the report you may be surprised.  Many of the jobs at risk are in the middle layer, just where I would anticipate the dental lab technicians would exist. A consequence of these jobs disappearing is likely those employees without work are forced to seek employment in positions below their qualifications. Those least qualified end up without work at all. The report states that “According to our estimates, about 47% of total US employment is at risk.” This is an astounding statement and one that should concern us all.

What does this mean for us in education? As we prepare our children for the future this once again seems to underscore the importance of educating for core skills that are timeless in their need. Skills like collaboration, critical thinking and problem solving, creativity, ingenuity, effective communication are coming to the surface more and more. What once were considered the “soft” skills are now at the top of the list of things that people desire as they look to life after formal schooling.

happy-kidsTo me, education always will really be about the educated citizen. Of course we absolutely need a skilled and capable workforce, but with the future so dynamic it seems that now more than ever, we cannot afford to pigeonhole people for a predetermined career path. Ignite their passion, keep them engaged, create lifelong learners who are flexible, adaptable and eager to contribute to the world. For some, they will pick the trades, for others, the arts, for others, it may be research and development or a career devoted in service of others. Whatever people choose, hopefully the path begins with an eye to being happy in your contributions to society. A career may be an area yet to be identified and a career may see people explore several different paths as many of us have. We need to remember that education is so much more than simply getting a job. Learning is a lifelong journey.

My son has fallen in love with Garfield cartoons. He laughs as he shows me a YouTube of Jim Davis published in 2012. Davis draws, he passes to a blue liner, who passes to a black liner, who passes to a colourer and detailer and finally back to Jim for approval. As I watch the process I anticipate how this story will end. My son shows me another youtube of Jim in 2014. This time, using a digital tablet to perform the entire process in only minutes and then clicking “send” to submit for publishing, his team of 4 or 5 is now a team of one and the process that used to take a few days now takes a few hours. The two clips stand in remarkable juxtaposition.

I don’t know what jobs await the children of today but I know that if they have not been exposed to those who ignite their passions and promote their learning in an ongoing way then we should all be concerned. The predetermined career paths that once existed are shifting weekly. If we are to prepare our children then they absolutely must have a strong foundation but most importantly they must be flexible and adaptable to the needs of the future. They must be excellent communicators, they need to be able to take risks and learn from failure, they need to be powerful collaborators who can admit that someone else might have a better idea. They must be able to work well with others and to tolerate the ambiguity of the day. And yes, they must have a strong foundation upon which all these other skills lay. Igniting this passion is the work our teachers do every day.

I put my credit card into the cold blue machine, paid and left the lot. As I drove away, I still found myself thinking of the man who greeted me every morning. He had skills, he was kind, he certainly seemed to be reliable and I do know that while the machine now performs the task, something larger was lost in our drive to be more efficient. Sometimes in cold grey places, a human touch will always be in need. That is something I know that a machine cannot replace and another reason for us to watch carefully as we embrace the changes that are coming.

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