IT jobs' big threat: Robots, automation; The solution: More humanity

For IT workers, the worry of becoming obsolete is constant. Toss in automation, robotics and artificial intelligence and many tech tasks won't need humans. Is there any wonder why IT is trying to learn more human and interpersonal skills to move up the food chain?
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

People with strong interpersonal skills who have advanced degrees and need to collaborate are likely to avoid losing their jobs to robots, automation and artificial intelligence, but potential unemployment angst is likely to persist.

Special Report: The State of IT Jobs: Winners and Losers

How many information technology workers will be able to navigate those changing conditions?

David Hummels, an economics professor at Purdue, noted the interpersonal communication as a key difference between humans and robots. Hummels, speaking at a Purdue conference later this month, was chiming in on a Pew Research Center report on robots and whether they would create as many jobs as they destroyed. Pew noted:

The vast majority of respondents to the 2014 Future of the Internet canvassing anticipate that robotics and artificial intelligence will permeate wide segments of daily life by 2025, with huge implications for a range of industries such as health care, transport and logistics, customer service, and home maintenance. But even as they are largely consistent in their predictions for the evolution of technology itself, they are deeply divided on how advances in AI and robotics will impact the economic and employment picture over the next decade.

In the information technology field, automation is already taking jobs away. As the cloud becomes prevalent there will be fewer people needed to run data centers. Like IT, it's a safe bet that robotics will destroy as many jobs as it creates.

A survey that went along with ZDNet's special report on IT jobs found that 59 percent of technology workers worried that their skills would become obsolete. Mainframe programmers, systems admins, help desk technicians and small business IT managers are becoming obsolete. Systems admins are likely to be automated in the future. Data scientists, IT architects, mobile software developers and security analysts are in demand.

It's unclear how many workers that are out of demand can be morphed into ones that are coveted.

However, IT workers aren't dumb. TechPro Research's full survey revealed that tech workers are trying to out human automation and the changes ahead. 


The takeaway: To stay in the information technology field workers will have to become less technical and more general purpose humans. 

Hummels reckons that humans can stay employed as robots take over if they have:

  • Strong interpersonal skills. Humans will have to have empathy and caring---two traits robots can't replicate.
  • Jobs that aren't repetitive. Uh oh. How many code monkeys would say their jobs are repetitive? IT can look repetitive at times. Those roles could be automated.
  • Roles that require collaboration. Robots aren't going to be good at collaboration for a while. Humans will need to fill that role.

The bottom line: The traits that are most needed to fend off automation and the robots are the ones least sterotypically common in the IT field. There's a reason business line leaders are grabbing a larger chunk of the technology budget and information science programs at university have to emphasize people skills more.

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