Could a robot do your job?
UPDATED: 01/25/2019 10:42:27 AM EST
NO COFFEE BREAKS REQUIRED: UMass Lowell Professors Beth Humberd and Scott Latham stand with a robot at the New England Robotics Validation and Experimentation Center, 110 Canal St. in Lowell. They published a paper in the MIT Sloan Management Review last fall proposing a framework to consider the threat of automation to different jobs. COURTESY OF ED BRENNEN, UMASS LOWELL
LOWELL -- Electricians and plumbers will probably weather the rise of automation. But pharmacists -- watch out.
That's according to analysis conducted by two University of Massachusetts Lowell professors using a simple framework they say offers insights to which professions are most and least vulnerable to automation.
"There's all this guidance out there about what organizations should do with all this automation and robotics. How can it make you more efficient? What are you going to do to retrain your workers?" said Assistant Professor Beth Humberd. "And there was really surprisingly very little helping individuals know what to do in the context of their career."
Humberd and Associate Professor Scott Latham co-authored a paper published in a fall 2018 issue of the MIT Sloan Management Review. The short paper has generated buzz online as people have tried to apply the framework to their own jobs.
Meeting in Brew'd Awakening Coffeehaus in Lowell and scribbling on napkins, Humberd and Latham considered jobs based on two dimensions: the "type of value these jobholders delivered and the skills they used to deliver it." Based on their findings, jobs were sorted into one of four categories: durable, deconstructed, disrupted and displaced.
However, what they found was the conventional wisdom, which viewed jobs requiring higher education as secure and blue collar jobs as vulnerable, was incorrect.
"There was an overwhelming bias that robots and automation was going to disadvantage blue collar workers more than white collar workers," Latham said. "We came to the conclusion, which is in the research and after looking at a multitude of jobs, that's just a flawed assumption."
Latham said his own experience as a first generation college student with a blue collar background made him skeptical of the standing conclusion.
"From the time I could walk, my earliest memories were driving around in a truck," he said. "(My dad) started out painting, drywall and ended up being a general contractor and builder."
Latham went on to work in software and later as a vice provost and dean at UMass Lowell.
Both Humberd and Latham are now professors at the Manning School of Business at UMass Lowell, though Latham focuses on organization and Humberd focuses on the individual worker.
Humberd said she also grew up with a unique perspective on blue collar and white collar labor.
"(I) had two of the only professional parents in a relatively less affluent area, so we always talk about that as a different sort of perspective on a similar sort of situation," she said.
Using the framework, they found jobs typically considered blue collar like electrician and plumber were probably durable, because they are too variable to reliably automate, yet people still need their services.
"We're probably pretty far away from ... some robot that could navigate a hundred different houses on the street that all have a different electrical system and plumbing system," Humberd said.
Meanwhile, pharmacists, generally considered a well-paying and secure career, will face a decrease of both the value they deliver and usefulness of their core skill set as more prescriptions are delivered through mail, they concluded.
A job like physician assistant would be a durable position, and possibly even increase in importance as they do much of the same work as doctors for less money.
Bricklayers and accountants will see the automation of key parts of their jobs, but the value they provide is not threatened making them "disrupted," according to the paper.
"Are we teaching (accountants) you need to understand debits and credits, but the system is going to do that for you? Humberd said.
Alternatively, she said should an accountant consider the skills they offer to be "around process improvement and transmission of financial information in innovative ways?"
Humberd and Latham said these changes may have implications for education, even as they expect their own jobs as professors to shift.
The in-person lecturer on a stage is shifting to an online class model, "deconstructing" their jobs. While their skills will remain relevant, the way they deliver "value" will shift, they said.
"I am the last generation of professor that will teach in this manner," Latham said.
This research will be included in a graduate level course taught at UMass Lowell about the future of work.
However, any predictions come with a disclaimer.
"Anyone who tells you where the future of work is going is crazy," Latham said. "They have no idea. So we're looking broadly at the future of work."
Though the paper explored specific examples, Humberd urged this is only a framework. Determining where each job falls in the matrix can be rethought and should be reconsidered periodically.
"Who know where we're going to be 50 years from now," Humberd said. "The dots may move. Looking at core skills and form and delivery is a comprehensive way at any point in time."
Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @ElizDobbins
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