Job Skills for an Automated World

by ASME Strategic Issues Committee


There is concern that technology is undermining the economy and causing widespread unemployment. Economists often describe the dislocation and unemployment caused by new technologies 'creative destruction'. The process of technology destroying jobs is not a new concern. Nor is it a process without plenty of pain and suffering for those workers who don't have the skills to succeed in today's competitive job market.

Studies based on previous periods of creative destruction show that this current low point will likely give way to growth in new industries based on new technologies. However, in the process, automation is continuously removing low skilled jobs which may never be replaced. Factory floor automation has removed many of the quality manufacturing jobs that formed the backbone of the middle class. Now information technology is taking over the functions of many service sector jobs from touch screen order systems in restaurants to high-end decision support tools for healthcare workers.

The health of the economy depends on the ability of workers to retrain and for highly skilled entrepreneurs to create new opportunities for them. Jobs in growing areas such as science, engineering and management rely heavily on the continuous improvement of skills and high levels of creativity. They are supported by policies that value entrepreneurship, protect intellectual property, reduce burdensome regulation and provide superb educational opportunities for students and existing workers.

Over the next decade, creativity will be the fuel that drives economic growth.

Computers and advanced robotics will continue to take over tasks that are too time-consuming, too tedious, or too complex or laborious for human endeavors in both the manufacturing and service sectors. However, the skills that drive creativity (imagination, innovation and interaction), and provide a competitive advantage in a highly competitive global market, may never be fully replicated in machines. Those nations, communities and companies that value imagination, innovation and interaction will have the capacity to adapt and thrive in an automated world.

Imagination: Imagination is the ability to create new ideas, products and solve problems through the power of insight.

Innovation: Innovation is the iterative process of creating more effective products, processes and technologies.

Interaction: Interaction is a vital part of society and drives creativity through the cross fertilization of ideas and experience.

These three skills are highly interdependent on one another. Jonah Lehrer in his book Imagine provides numerous examples of breakthroughs created through an imaginative insight that is refined through a constant process of iteration that uses both sides of the brain. This process is heightened by the sharing of new ideas and experiences. It is for this reason that companies as different as 3M and Google regularly rotate scientists and engineers across divisions.

Mechanical engineers and engineering companies that are able to harness the power of imagination, innovation and interaction will be in demand regardless of the development of new technology. Narrowly defined technical skills may become obsolete due to the development of new technology, but the ability to imagine and innovate will always remain in demand. By the same token, the ability of engineers to interact in diverse human networks will become more important as the scope and complexity of engineering projects increase.

Implications for ASME

Many of the current examples that demonstrate the power of creativity arise from the melding of engineering with other fields of study, such as the biological sciences. ASME can play a vital role by monitoring this growing area of research and sharing the findings with their members and partners. ASME can also work as an intermediary that facilitates interaction inside and outside the field of mechanical engineering. The first step may be bringing together experts from outside the engineering field with mechanical engineers to discuss imagination, innovation and interaction. ASME could also work with its partners to encourage and develop curriculum for engineers that advance these skills.

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