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The concept of work is getting re-worked. As automated technology continues to replace human labor, the traditional definition of "average" work is becoming outdated. The skills required to get and keep a job are changing dynamically and continuously. With technological progress occurring at record rates, success at any level of work is increasingly defined by how well you work with machines. 

Marc Pensky, who coined the term "digital immigrant" in 2006, described our current work environment quite eloquently when he told CNN, “People will always be behind now, and that will be a stress they have to cope with.” That stress is prominent for Baby Boomers and Generation X who experienced changing technology only as professional adults. For at least the last decade, their perception has been that the pace of technology was too fast

For younger generations, exposure to technology began at birth and the relationship is intimately personal. While increasing automation evokes a sense of dependability and anxiety in the 40+ age group, it empowers and instills freedom in Millennials and Generation Z.

With a changing of the guard in the workforce, a new norm is developing in the career landscape. "Average" skills only qualify workers for a small subset of jobs – and because the growth of semi-skilled work is slow, the average worker is quickly becoming a low-skill, low-pay worker. 

Keeping Up with the Rate of Change 

A recent graphic published by Dent Research Employment highlights the widening gaps between skilled, semi-skilled and low-skilled jobs:

  • In February 2015, 150,000 jobs were created below the median hourly wage; only 123,000 jobs were created above the median ($22.97).
  • For jobs created below the median, 24 percent of the jobs paid $12.00 to $15.45 per hour. Job growth at these lower wages was more than double the rate of jobs paying $22.97 to $47.66.

Change has always made some jobs obsolete. But technology disruption has always created new jobs, new products and new services too.

This time around, however, change is replacing jobs faster than it’s creating them. Since 2000, productivity rates have increased, while job growth has stagnated

Consequently, today’s new jobs require workers to have better, more diverse backgrounds to qualify as average. A college education is no longer the gateway to a well-paying career. Individuals need to develop and maintain transferrable skill sets for multiple and possibly simultaneous careers, instead of honing skills for one lifelong career. 

Collaborating Between Man and Machine

The Institute for the Future (IFTF) released research that suggests that a qualitative shift, perhaps an order of magnitude greater than the outsourcing revolution, could now be taking shape in the workforce. The IFTF’s project describes some of the new work skills required to leverage emerging automation technologies — adaptive thinking, cognitive load management, cross-cultural competency and “sense making” to name a few.

Collaboration will also be a must-have skill going forward. But the scope of collaboration is something that most people don’t yet grasp. 

Today, collaboration not only concerns relationships between humans, but between humans and machines. Unlike the John Henry legend in which man’s skills challenge the productivity of a steam-hammer or the time that chess champion Garry Kasparov triumphed against Big Blue, future innovation will depend upon people racing with machines, not against them.

Training Factory Workers in Finesse

recent story on NPR about Standard Motor Products, a three-generation family business that makes replacement parts for car engines, effectively described how work is changing.

A few decades ago, many of SMP's employees had no high-school degree. Some couldn’t read. But they were paid well and many enjoyed comfortable living wages, maybe even middle-class lifestyles. But in today’s factory, workers don’t only need to know how to read — they need advanced technical and critical thinking skills.

The SMP story described the model of the new factory worker: He/she has an encyclopedic knowledge of hardware, works on the team that makes parts or assembles machines and understands precision engineering. 

In the past, the worker only needed to know how to use a hammer and screwdriver. Today, manufacturing is a high-tech, high-precision business. It’s all about finesse.

Crossing the Data Divide

Data mining is another example of how work is changing. In the past, millions of jobs were created for people to input data. Today, computers input much of that basic data themselves and software creates more of it. Data jobs now require workers to have the ability to analyze and use the data — skill sets that few people have. Finding a solution requires not only exceptional “sense-making” skills, but the ability to collaborate with machines.

By 2018, the United States alone is predicted to face a skills gap of up to 190,000 people with analytical skills needed to use big data to make effective decisions. But predictions like this about employment and unemployment are nearly meaningless without management and government alike focusing on the fundamentally changing nature of work. 

The time is now: From our education systems to our expectations about careers, we need to evolve the average worker alongside the evolution of average work. 

Photo: Public Domain Images