As technology transforms the way we work, look for a similar transformation in education and workforce development

In a recent Friday Roundup, we flagged a Pew Research article on the future of workforce automation. The report, by Aaron Smith, made challenging predictions about a disruptive future. 

From self-driving vehicles and semi-autonomous robots to intelligent algorithms and predictive analytic tools, machines are increasingly capable of performing a wide range of jobs that have long been human domains. A 2013 study by researchers at Oxford University posited that as many as 47% of all jobs in the United States are at risk of “computerization.” And many respondents in a recent Pew Research Center canvassing of technology experts predicted that advances in robotics and computing applications will result in a net displacement of jobs over the coming decades – with potentially profound implications for both workers and society as a whole.

It’s an article worth revisiting, particularly in light of today’s Seattle Times story focusing on autonomous technology on the waterfront. The Bloomberg piece begins at a marine cargo facility in Los Angeles, where

…advanced algorithms select the most efficient pathway for autonomous carriers to move containers across the wharf.

The four-story-high orange machines cradle their cargo, passing quietly within inches of each other, at speeds as fast as 18 miles an hour, but never touching. Self-driving cranes on tracks stack the containers and then deliver them to waiting trucks and trains with minimal human intervention.

TraPac’s Los Angeles marine-cargo facility demonstrates how autonomous technology could revolutionize freight transport as much as or more than personal travel. TraPac’s equipment doubles the speed of loading and unloading ships, saving money and boosting profits. Its impact is rivaling that of containerization, which eliminated most manual sorting and warehousing on docks after World War II.

The technology isn’t in place in Seattle and Tacoma, yet, but it’s coming.

“I think the industry is probably moving in that direction, but we have yet to see any of that up here,” said Tara Mattina, a spokeswoman for the Northwest Seaport Alliance, which manages the Seattle and Tacoma ports. “At this point it’s still done by humans — really highly skilled humans, I would say.”

The technology is disruptive, upsetting long-standing operations and careers and the transition will be costly. But ultimately technologies that increase efficiency–cutting costs, boosting productivity and reliability–will win out. Which takes us back to the Pew report,

…workers’ views on this subject also differ somewhat based on the type of work they currently do. For instance, 41% of workers whose jobs involve mostly manual or physical labor expect that their current jobs will “definitely” exist in their current forms in 50 years, as do 34% of those who describe their current occupations as “professional.” By contrast, just 23% of those who currently work in a managerial or executive role expect that their current jobs will exist unchanged for the next five decades.

That makes sense. The more routine the work, the more likely it is to be first in line for automation. All of which underscores the importance of higher-level workforce skills, decision-making, analysis and communications. In our state, a leader in innovation and technology, the bar is set a little higher. As we’ve written,

By 2020, 70 percent of Washington jobs will require postsecondary education or training. Preparing our students for these opportunities requires high-quality education at every level.

The advancing technology expands opportunity, but the new opportunities come with higher expectations for workplace skills. We’ve addressed the issue here and here. Policymakers will need to have the foresight and insight to both embrace the change and ensure that Washingtonians are prepared to thrive in the new economy.