How to Survive (and Thrive) in the Age of Robots: An Interview with Patrick Mullane of Harvard Business School

Thanks to advances in automation, robots can vacuum your floors, restock your fridge and even steal your job. Well, perhaps.

As robotics, software and artificial intelligence have grown more sophisticated, so experts have been grappling with how it might affect the workforce. A 2013 Oxford University study found that 47% of U.S. jobs may be lost to machines and software, while a 2016 study from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development puts that number at 9%, following an examination of single job tasks that could potentially be automated. Even so, the OSCE estimate a further 25% will change significantly due to advances in technology.

While the experts might go back and forth on the specifics of how much “the rise of the robots” will impact workers, there’s no doubt that organizations and employees will need to adapt to remain successful. But how? To dig deeper into this changing landscape and learn how employers and job seekers should respond, we talked with Patrick Mullane, executive director of HBX, Harvard Business School’s online learning platform.

How big is this threat?

It’s tempting to imagine a worst-case scenario in which millions of workers lose their jobs to machines. For instance, tech billionaires Bill Gates and Elon Musk are in the forefront of those voicing concerns about the future. However, automation is not a new phenomenon, and as Mullane points out, many of the jobs we lose may very well be replaced by different positions that require new skill sets.

This prediction is partly based on Mullane’s own leadership experience. Before working for Harvard, he was the CEO of a manufacturing firm that produced flexible materials for medical, transportation, industrial and electronic purposes. In this role, he had a front row seat for the impact of technology on employees working in traditional industries.

“What changed wasn’t that we didn’t need skilled people to help us manufacture things. It’s that we need skilled people who knew how to program a machine, versus somebody who knew how to do a manual setup and manually make a part. So I think that’s kind of a stereotypical poster child, if you will, for what automation technology is going to do to the economy.”

So while it may be impossible to predict how many jobs we’ll lose to automation, we can look forward and consider how learning new skills can prepare employees to take on the jobs of tomorrow.

From blue collar to white collar, the rise of the machines will impact everybody  

Who will be affected? Pretty much everybody, says Mullane:

“I say that anybody who leaves high school without, for example, basic Excel skills — it’s going to be a much tougher world for them. There’s not a job you’ll go into where you won’t touch a spreadsheet program, or word processing program, or an ERP system in a company that’s managing inventory production. There’s just nothing you can do anymore that isn’t going to have a technological edge.”

Mullane zeroes in on “middle skill jobs,” as especially susceptible to disruption. These are jobs that don’t necessarily…

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