Are you prepared for a future of tech-driven job disruption? Chances are, you’re on your own

David Dodwell says as large corporations mull over upskilling their workers, let’s not forget that most Hong Kong workers are employed by small companies with far fewer resources. Asking them to take responsibility for their own lifelong learning will be a huge challenge

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 September, 2018, 7:33am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 September, 2018, 8:00am

When I was launched as a wide-eyed graduate into the world of journalism in 1974, there was one requirement. I had to buy a typewriter. That was my first bank loan. Within six months – as a compulsory requirement of the craft – I had to learn to touch-type and master shorthand up to a speed of 100 words a minute.

I still use the shorthand today. It used to impress my daughters much more than anything I learned at university. But that grand old Olympus typewriter – then the indispensable tool of any journalist’s trade – is today buried somewhere deep in a landfill. By 1981, the Financial Times was sending me and other bright young things over to Germany to learn how to work new computer-networked desktop machines that cost US$10,000 each. Craft-based print unions that had held Fleet Street in thrall for three centuries quickly disappeared.

At last week’s SCMP workshop on the future of work, 74 per cent of the people gathered there said they did not feel prepared for the workforce changes ahead. One speaker from Ernst & Young noted: “It’s impossible to say that we are well positioned, because the future is so unclear. There are challenges and changes ahead and we can’t anticipate what they are.”

There were profound nods across the room agreeing that the workplace challenge was unprecedented. Life was being disrupted.

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Forgive me if I demur. Back in 1982, when my beloved typewriter was abandoned for a computer keyboard, that too was disruption – profound and comprehensive disruption. It was commonplace then, and today, nearly four decades later, it is still commonplace. It was true in 1982 that the only constant is change, and it is true today. There is nothing millennial about it, except it is a millennial’s turn to experience it.

The only constant is change. There is nothing millennial about it, except it is a millennial’s turn to experience it

Everyone nods in sage agreement when someone tells them that more than half of the jobs we will be doing in 2030 do not yet exist. They concur at the massive challenge of five generations of workers now needing to learn each others’ contrasted cultures across a single workplace. I have a not-very-sneaking suspicion that neither of these are new.

But there were interesting reminders at that Post workshop. As we listened to spokespeople from Ernst & Young, DHL, Microsoft and Cisco talk about the institutional challenges of staying competitive and “future-proofing” the skills of their large workforces, I was reminded that some 98 per cent of Hong Kong companies are small and medium-sized enterprises that employ 100 people or fewer.

If people in companies of 5,000 or 10,000 people or more are wringing their hands about the skills their workers are going to need 10 years from now, what must it be like in a micro, small or medium-sized company, or out there in the gig world, where you have no accounts department, nor IT department, nor a “chief knowledge officer” – just a multitasking jack-of-all-trades boss who calls himself a chief executive? Perhaps “disruption” is more of a constant than most like to admit.

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Just days before the SCMP workshop, the World Economic Forum released its 2018 Future of Jobs Report. It, too, was full of guff to “future-proof” skills, and the need to “take advantage of a rapidly closing window to create a new future of good work for all”, but there was interesting and thoughtful stuff, too.

There was nothing very new in their key “change drivers”: ubiquitous high-speed mobile internet, artificial intelligence, widespread adoption of big data analytics and cloud technology, but in their survey across 12 work sectors and over 160 economies, covering companies employing about 15 million people, some gems plopped out.

Those companies told the World Economic Forum they expected to lose 980,000 jobs between now and 2022 but would create 1.74 million new jobs that exploited new technologies. If reflected worldwide, that would imply losing about 75 million jobs to new technologies, while creating 133 million jobs, for a global net employment gain of almost 60 million jobs. These new jobs would be “more adapted to the new division of labour between humans, machines and algorithms”.

Their interviewees (58 per cent of them employed in companies of 5,000 staff or more, with 88 per cent of the companies employing more than 100) told them that they were aware of a “new human-machine frontier”: humans today accounted for 71 per cent of the “task hours” involved in their activity, but that this would fall to 58 per cent of “task hours” by 2022.

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Approximately 54 per cent of employees would between now and 2022 need significant “reskilling and upskilling”. Of these, 35 per cent would need training of up to six months, 9 per cent of six to nine months, and 10 per cent of a year or more.

Noting the imperative for “agile lifelong learning”, the report wrung its hands over how to ensure individuals would receive the support and guidance needed to acquire the right skills: two-thirds of companies surveyed “expect workers to adapt and pick up skills in the course of their changing jobs” while “those most in need of reskilling or upskilling are least likely to receive such training”.

Both the World Economic Forum report and the SCMP workshop leave me with a sense of angst

“There will be unquestionable need to take personal responsibility for one’s own lifelong learning and career development,” it concluded. Key “future-proof” skills will include creativity, originality, initiative, critical thinking, persuasiveness, negotiation, resilience, flexibility and complex problem solving. Duh!

The report calls for a “universal lifelong learning fund”. A great idea, but hugely naive. In ordinary language, this means putting more taxpayer money into the education sector, or wrestling it away from existing education institutions. That would involve some interesting “disruption”.

Both the World Economic Forum report and the SCMP workshop leave me with a sense of angst. If you are lucky enough to work for big and successful companies like Cisco, Ernst & Young, DHL or Microsoft, then the chances of “future-proofing” your working life seem good, whatever the disruption raging around us. But for that 80 per cent outside this lucky circle, taking personal responsibility for one’s own lifelong learning seems a mountain to climb.

David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view