Robots! Clear and Future Danger For Economies

I was at a conference recently and there was a speaker who was extolling the power of robots, technology, automation and artificial intelligence (AI) in the modern workplace and how it was going to revolutionise the global economy.

There was quite a catalogue of achievements as a result of increased robotics and AI including lower ‘FTE’ (or ‘Full Time Equivalent’ of human labour) requirements and greater efficiency, productivity and decreased errors and mistakes. These were achievements that were backed by undisputed statistics and data.

The ability to create consistently high economic value using systems, robots and AI which do not make mistakes, which do not break down often, which can even be self-correcting becomes very appealing.

However amidst the glories of robotics and AI, I felt increasingly concerned about where the world was heading with the increased introduction of automation, robotics and AI and the impact this was going to have on employment, social mobility and income equality.

My concerns

Technology as a displacer of jobs.

Technology, automation and robotics initially replaced blue-collar jobs and roles from the economies. Increasingly greater sophistication of AI means that white-collar jobs are also being replaced. We read various reports about the jobs of the future being technology-related roles that help create, maintain and repair robots and their related technology, but I postulate that robots can fix themselves (and their ‘peers’) better than people ever can and over time, robots can create other robots to do the tasks which they need done.

In the past, technology was an enabler. It was a great source of enhanced productivity for nations’ economies.

However, technology has now become a replacer or displacer – of jobs, of people, of roles. It has now become a tool to enhance economic output but ends up depleting people and their earnings.

This is going to be a longer-term fundamental problem and challenge to societal and economic growth and development.

The impact on developing economies

Let us consider Philippines and India. They have spent billions of dollars investing in the infrastructure and ecosystem to help create thriving shared services and business process outsourcing (SSCs / BPOs) businesses. This was to help meet the needs of multinational companies. However, with AI and automation increasingly taking on a majority of the roles and jobs that are currently being done by millions of people in both countries, it is going to lead to a significant job loss and risk the potential collapse of the SSCs and BPO sector in both countries.

Over time, with increasing automation and AI, multinationals need not outsource various roles to locations of lower labour cost. They will instead seek to outsource the roles to nations with the lowest tax and the best technology infrastructures in which they can base their systems and robots. 

The moral obligation and income inequality

With increasing AI and automation, I struggle to see how the job losses faced by millions as a result of robots taking on their roles are going to be mitigated. There also seems to be little alternative sources of formal employment.

Whilst it is easy to highlight how automation can reduce expenses by 66% and reduce ‘FTEs,’ I think we need to look at people beyond merely being an ‘FTE’ or as a mere factor of production.

 

Over time, it is going to also exacerbate the issues of income inequality which is already one of THE pressing moral issues of our time. I’ve covered this topic at length previously.

The factors of production, the technologies, the AI and robots are going to be in the control of a very small segment of society. Whilst it may create vast economic growths, it does not lead to growth in income or wealth for the majority of the people. This will lead to societal fractures which can be devastating to nations and society.

What then the moral obligation to people and society?

Possible solutions?

Leaving this issue to be dealt with purely by market forces will not result in resolution and frankly will be disastrous in my opinion. There needs to be a concerted governmental approach to resolving this and finding solutions that work.

Using levers such as tax policies will be ineffective, particularly in a world with little tax harmonisation. For instance, increased taxation for robotics-led solutions will only encourage a beggar-thy-neighbour policy and in a world with little tax harmonisation, it becomes a useless endeavour.

 

If we accept that robotics and automation are an inalienable part of the development of society, then we need to accept that the current economic models  will not be best suited for what the world needs. Maybe it is time for us to seriously consider and contemplate universal income as a way to mitigate and tackle some of the problems coming our way as a result of robotics and automation.

Universal income is something a number of countries are experimenting with to tackle income inequality which as I’ve explained earlier will only be growing with greater automation and robotics. Finland for instance has started a pilot programme, the Swiss held a referendum in June 2016 to consider universal basic income which did not pass as only a quarter of the Swiss agreed with it, the Dutch will be carrying out a pilot programme this year, and this is just a start.

What is increasingly clear is that it is not enough to simply hope the challenges brought on by AI and robotics are going to go away, there needs to be a concerted and strident efforts made to mitigate them.

The Triumvirate of Technology, Education and Employability – Solving the Policy Riddle

I has the privilege to speak at the ACCA Asia Pacific Future Education Summit in Beijing earlier this month (January 2016).

 

Slide1

During the course of my presentation I touched on the changing trends in learning, the impact of technology on learning and jobs and ACCA’s response to these global changes.

Below are my thoughts on this critical triumvirate of technology, education and employability and how it will help resolve some of our major policy issues and challenges of the day.

 

Slide3

Young people today are three times as likely as their parents to be out of work.

I have been considering this very urgent issue of employability and the growing ‘employability gap’: the fact that the skills students have as they leave our educational institutions aren’t meeting the expectations of employers, and that employers also want wider, softer skills as well as demonstration of knowledge and hard competencies.

It is also my view that technology is often woefully underexploited when it comes to giving students the opportunity to develop their professional skills.

 

Slide4

Globally 75 million young people are out of employment. The issue of employability is not one limited to a certain geography or country. Below are some of the main challenges across some of the major nations/regions of the world.

INDIA

According to a survey conducted by the Singapore Management University (SMU) in conjunction with Indian partners, it was felt that the employability of Indian graduates is low due to skill and geographical mismatch.

The survey also concluded that this gap can be bridged by digitisation of learning.

It is worth noting that the employability ratio of management graduates was only 15 per cent, engineering (20 per cent), law (14 per cent) and medical graduates (32 per cent).

JAPAN

An estimated 700,000 young people, known as hikikomori, have withdrawn from society and rarely leave home. These individuals have collectively withdrawn from the economic population of the country as a result of employability and the subsequent marginalisation.

EUROPE

Across the 28 countries of the European Union, unemployment among 15- to 24-year-olds was 22 percent in 2014/2015. The lack of prospects in the job market for young people is a serious problem in large parts of the EU. The highest unemployment rates are found in the south of Europe.Spain has the highest rate, with half of 15- to 24-year-olds out of work. In Portugal, Cyprus, Italy, Croatia and Greece a little more than one in three people in this age group are out of work.

CHINA

According to a study by McKinsey, the number of students graduating each year from university or vocational school has risen from 1 million a year in 2000 to 6.1 million in 2011. This stunning increase means that the number of new graduates exceeds demand for their services in many areas of the country, resulting in an unemployment rate of 16.4 percent for college graduates.

McKinsey also estimate that by 2020, Chinese employers will demand 142 million more high-skilled workers—those with university degrees or vocational training—or about 24 million more than the country will likely supply. Companies could fill this high-skilled labor gap with less-skilled workers, but this would result in productivity losses or poorer quality products and services. Other companies may leave roles unfilled, delaying the decision to grow or expand.

The study estimates that if China does not bridge this gap by 2020, the opportunity cost could reach some $250 billion (about 2.3 percent of GDP)—which is almost the same as that of Singapore or Malaysia’s GDP! That’s a very large amount of money to put at risk – not to mention the impact on social welfare and harmony.

Slide5

There are a few reasons as to why this employability gap exists.

The first reason is a difference in what employers want from graduates and what they are getting. Surveys of employers consistently show that they are not satisfied with the skill levels of their new tertiary hires, whether these are graduates of universities or vocational schools. The main complaints, according to McKinsey research (and a wealth of anecdotal evidence), are lack of technical training, inadequate English, and deficient soft skills, such as the ability to work in teams, critical thinking, and innovative flair. For instance in China, in 2013, more than a third of employers in China surveyed said they struggled to recruit skilled workers, with 61 percent of these companies attributing this to a shortage of general employability skills.

A second mismatch has to do with the knowledge requirements of the future and the structural makeup of the workforce. As countries’ evolve their underlying economic models, their labour needs shift as well and the resultant demand for higher skilled talent is not met by the status-quo educational systems.

Thirdly is one of a geographic mismatch. There are instances where the universities in certain countries tend to be concentrated in an area and this leads to a distribution problem as there are other areas where there are not enough universities to support the demand.

There is also a large question about how the education and training system also operates in. In a number of countries, there is growing concern—among parents, employers, and policymakers alike—that the system’s emphasis on rote learning and focus solely on exam performance does not foster the mental agility and innovative flair that the modern work place requires.

Slide6

Therefore as you see, employability is a very real and serious issue that has serious economic and social consequences.

But before we proceed, it may be useful to have a brief view of what we mean by employability skills.

I have here a list which is not meant to be exhaustive but provides a flavour for some of the skill sets and capabilities we need to consider when talking about employability.

  1. Communication skills that contribute to productive and harmonious relations between employees and customers.
  2. Team work skills that contribute to productive working relationships and outcomes both within teams, the organisation and with external parties.
  3. Problem-solving skills that contribute to productive outcomes and with a commitment to finding solutions.
  4. Initiative and enterprise skills that contribute to innovative outcomes and driving stronger business performance
  5. Planning and organising skills that contribute to long-term and short-term strategic planning and building the processes to achieve desired outcomes
  6. Self-management skills that contribute to employee satisfaction and growth and ensuring they contribute to their organisation’s well-being in the process.
  7. Learning skills that contribute to ongoing development.
  8. Technology skills that the modern workplace requires.

Slide7

Institutions and organisations tackle student employability in a number of ways, including through for example through professional experience requirements,  and employability modules, careers services, work-placements and experiences, work-based mentors, volunteering and increasingly through looking at employability awards. We know there is already some excellent practice, particularly in vocational and professional disciplines where notions of ‘what it is to be professional’ are embedded in the curriculum, but for others this is less apparent. Few use technology really effectively in an integrated way to support student employability, although some are exploring this.

There is evidence of an ‘employability gap’ in the skills that students are actually starting with on day one of employment and the skills that employers are expecting from them. However, there is an increasing appreciation that ’technology for employability’ can provide many potential benefits to students, institutions and employers

Digitally savvy graduates are essential for shaping tomorrow’s entrepreneurial activities, but digital literacies aren’t well articulated.

Slide8

The nature of knowledge is changing and, in this digital age, our definition of basic literacy urgently needs expanding. The notion of digital literacy – those capabilities that equip an individual for living, learning and working in a digital society – is one that needs to be taken seriously by education providers and consider how it can be an enabler for employability.

Technology acts as an enabler in supporting employability in the following ways:

  • ensuring that opportunities are provided throughout the curriculum in a scaffolded and supported way for learners to reflect, plan, and articulate and showcase their knowledge and skills in an integrated way
  • embedding digital literacy skills more broadly across the learning
  • ensuring that assessments and learning are ‘authentic’, and more closely aligned to the workplace and real-world tasks
  • using a principles-based approach to change which places the importance of developing self-aware, independent learners (which some argue is the main purpose of education at the heart of institutional strategy, policy and practice
  • Supporting tutors through better management tools to help their students. By using technology as a tool for learner management, teachers can develop and execute individual learning plans and track the progress being made by the learner in relation to the employability skills.
  • empowering students as agents of change, which evidence shows benefits all stakeholders including students in the development of wider employability skills. Students and learners can also document their employability skills and self-assessment notes as evidence of their competency and knowledge levels.

We know however that although there is a lot of excellent practice, it is not widespread. Technology can support all of the aims above, but further work is needed to ensure that good practice is shared and teams dedicated to developing learners are supported in maximising opportunities offered by technology, and in exploring how existing employability opportunities can harness technology to best effect.

Slide9

According to research conducted by Cleary, Flynn and Thomasson (2006), it is recommended that for effective employability skills development; the design of an overall active teaching and learning and assessment strategy adheres to the following four adult learning principles:

  1. Responsible learning – learners take responsibility for their learning. Responsible learning emphasises self-management and initiative and enterprise as learners work independently to develop new knowledge and activities in the interest of furthering their skills.”
  2. Experiential learning – learners learn from experience. This “emphasises ‘learning to do’ and ‘learning from doing’. Authentic learning occurs when learners have an opportunity to apply their skills and knowledge in authentic work environments or in contexts which attempt to simulate the real.
  3. Cooperative learning – learners learn with and through others. This form of learning “encourages learners to learn from each other, share learning tasks and learn from a range of people including colleagues, mentors, coaches, supervisors, trainers, and others.
  1. Reflective learning – learners reflect on and learn from their experience. This can be introspective, where learners are encouraged to examine changes in their own perceptions, goals, confidences and motivations. It addresses: developing critical thinking skills, learning to learn and developing attitudes that promote lifelong learning. Reflective learning can be useful in directly addressing problem solving, initiative and enterprise and self-management skills

Digital or e-learning can foster these four types of learning and the development of all of the employability skills.

Slide10

Universities and colleges have a responsibility to develop students into individuals who can thrive in an era of digital information and communication – those who are digitally literate are more likely to be economically secure and these skills are especially important in higher education given that graduate white collar jobs are almost entirely performed on computers and portable devices.

But it’s not just about employability – increasingly digital literacy is vital for learning itself. Digital tools such as virtual learning environments, e-portfolios and social networking software for peer mentoring are now common within further and higher education and students without the skills to navigate them risk suffering an inferior student experience at best, and being left completely behind at worst. It goes beyond IT skills, a complete culture change is required to live fully within the modern digital society, from understanding how to communicate ideas effectively in a range of media to managing digital reputation and history.

Slide19

There are a number of success factors that will be critical as organisations consider an effective use of digital learning to support employability of their students.

They include the following and it is worth bearing in mind that this is an iterative and progressive process which will in turn drive better outcomes.

CONCEPT AND ROLE

  1. Develop the employability skills based on a strategic and structured approach that links the employability skills to each other
  2. Recognise the value of the employability skills in all aspects of life in addition to their employability role, and include recognition of prior developments in these skills in learning and assessment strategies.

PEDAGOGICIAL ASPECTS

  1. Use e-learning in blended learning strategies to cater for a range of learning styles and encourage individualised, self-directed learning.
  2. Adopt active learning strategies such as role plays, real work and simulated work environments, and incorporate e-learning.
  3. Recognise the centrality of learning skills as the foundation for addressing all of the other employability skills.
  4. Break the learning skills into four types: responsible; experiential; cooperative; and reflective learning.
  5. Implement an upfront induction/orientation program to develop awareness and understanding of the employability skills and the e-learning role using a conceptual structure that shows the linkages between these skills.
  6. Link remedial education for basic skills, such as literacy, and development of the employability skills in integrated strategies that harness e-learning.

ASSESSMENT AND REPORTING

  1. Use e-portfolios as a tool for student reflective learning as well as a tool for reporting and assessing learner progress in the employability skills.
  2. Pay attention to the different levels of application and performance of the learners and aid them through the journey,

MANAGEMENT ASPECTS

  1. Use a technology-based learning management system to support individual learning plans, tracking of learner progress and achievement, and the efficient use of teaching resources.
  2. Adopt whole of institution strategies, effectively coordinated and supported by staff development activities in both employability skills and e-learning and particularly e-learning facilitation skills to enhance cooperative learning opportunities.

KEY AREAS FOR FURTHER DEVELOPMENT

  1. Recognise that further innovations and improvements will be required to further strengthen the education framework and support learners and students.

Slide20

There are some efforts we can do to help bridge the employability gap.

We need to make a better case for using technology to develop employability. We need to raise digital aspirations of employers, universities, learning partners and professional bodies such as ACCA and develop students as ‘digital entrepreneurs’ that can go on to act as agents of change for business. Digital literacy often isn’t related to employability skills, and we need to see this change to make a clear link.

We need to work in partnership with employers to understand needs better

We must not forget about those youth that are outside the formal education system, or are otherwise marginalized due to disabilities or their gender. Many youth are employed in the informal sector, and may not be able to access traditional schooling or have access to schools in their regiosn. Offering alternative, non-formal models of relevant education are crucial.

Without these strategies, there is a risk that students leave university or college equipped with the right qualifications for their chosen career but without the tools and understanding they need to thrive in the connected, globalised digital world of today.

Slide21

Overall, I would like to conclude that digital learning and the employability skills should be seen as two of the dynamic influences whose interaction is likely to have a significant impact on shaping the evolving approach to l education and training now and into the future. There is much work to be done but finding effective solutions in this closely interlinked areas of technology, education and employability will help resolve some of the major economic and social issues of our time.