Automation, AI to create wave of displaced workers

BOULDER — Increased automation and artificial intelligence will combine to create a wave of disruption that will eliminate hundreds of millions of jobs globally by 2030, placing new urgency on efforts to retrain workers and develop the skill sets necessary for new jobs that will be created.

That was the message from Josh Davies, CEO of The Center for Work Ethic Development, opening keynote speaker at the 11th annual Boulder Economic Summit, Tuesday, at the University Memorial Center on the University of Colorado Boulder campus.

The event, titled “The Workforce of the Future,” attracted about 370 people and was organized by the Boulder Economic Council.

Davies described “creative disruption,” which occurs when new technologies eliminate jobs.

“The combination of increased automation, along with the advent of artificial intelligence, are working together to disrupt our workplace like we have not seen in 30 years,” Davies said.

“Creative disruption is this idea that when technology comes, we destroy some jobs,” he added, citing the elimination of telephone operators as technology made the position obsolete. But new jobs have been created, including app developers, a major industry in Colorado.

“There are far more developers of mobile apps than there ever were switchboard operators in Colorado,” he said.

“When you look at where we are, what you have to remember is that technology is coming, and there’s nothing we can do about it,” he said.

Creative disruption “allows employment to continue to grow,” Davies said. “If you look at technology, it is not in any way adversely impacting the number of people who are working in America. All it’s done is shift where they work.”

But the coming disruption in 2030 might be different, and more challenging. Davies said that occupations most in danger of disruption are those with repetitive tasks that can be easily replicated, such as telemarketing, accounting/auditing and retail sales clerks. With the latter, he predicted that 92 percent of all retail jobs will be eliminated, accounting for 16 million people.

Globally, almost 400 million jobs are predicted to be eliminated by the automation and artificial intelligence wave.

“When we talk about creative disruption, that we have always created more jobs with technology than we’ve replaced, here’s what I see happening: that the 2030 wave of decoupling will be creative destruction, and for the first time ever, technology will lose more jobs than will be replaced. We will not have as many opportunities.”

What to do with these displaced workers will be a significant challenge, he said.

Andi Rugg, executive director of Skillful Colorado, said that the disruption in Colorado’s economy could be “much less dramatic” than what Davies related, with the state working to create an environment in which businesses and workers can thrive and grow.

“This economy has to be based on skills,” Rugg said. “It has to be led by businesses, with businesses setting the demand for the skills that are required to be successful in their organizations. Engineers need to be educating students for those skills, and workers themselves have to understand the skills that they have and those that they need in order to be successful in this economy.”

Rugg identified several skills that are transferable from one occupation to another, including the ability to handle pressure, being a self-directed learner, dexterity with symbols and being a strong team player — all skills required for a software developer, musician and financial-services professional.

“These are foundational and transferable skills that we cannot overlook,” she said. “These are the skills that we’re going to have to recognize and be training toward to create an economy where both employers and job seekers have the flexibility to adapt to this changing shift.

“More than a third of the American workforce, maybe more, will have to acquire new skills for the new jobs that are coming,” she added. “Our challenge is to make sure that the people in our workforce have the skills to be successful in this economy.”

Skillful Colorado is an initiative of the Markle Foundation, the state of Colorado, Microsoft Corp. and other groups. It works with employers, educators and labor officials to help shift the employment market to a skills-based system, in which employers look at skills, no matter where a prospective worker attained them.

She noted that workers say there are not enough opportunities, while employers lament the lack of skilled workers.

“Skills are what will be bridging this gap,” she said.

The Boulder Economic Summit included numerous panels, including Industry & University Collaboration, Work-Based Learning, Millennials and Beyond, Addressing Housing & Transportation, Finding a Path to Gender Equity and Moving to Skill-Based Hiring.