Will technologists digitize themselves out of jobs someday?

New Deloitte study asserts technology has created more jobs than those destroyed. IT opportunities have grown substantially, but will automation, cloud and mobile sustain or reverse this trend?

In the last 140 years, technology has created more jobs than it has destroyed. IT managers and consultants have been the beneficiaries of the digital revolution over the past two decades. Can these good times last, or will IT jobs themselves also be digitized at some point?

Photo: IBM Media Relations

A recent study published by Deloitte took on the big question of whether technology is a job creator or job destroyer. The authors pondered whether, "in a world of driverless cars, self checkouts and telephone banking, would humans have any jobs at all?"

In a post at Medium, Nathan Leigh provides a very comprehensive summary of the challenges ahead for lower-skilled and corporate workers in the evolving digital society ahead. He ultimately agrees that technology creates more opportunities than it destroys, but it often means painful transitions for many.

Ian Stewart, Debapratim De and Alex Cole, authors of the Deloitte assessment, look at the trend a bit more optimistically, noting in their research that the rise of technology creates new waves of job categories as fast as it wipes out others. Secretaries are a waning part of corporations, but there needs to be even more skilled professionals who can build and maintain the internal communications, collaboration and document production systems that take their place.

The Deloitte study covered occupations in the United Kingdom, but align with the global trend toward job creation based on two pillars: care and computing.

The fastest growing occupations seen since 1992 include the following:

  • Nursing auxiliaries and assistants 909%
  • Teaching and educational support assistants 580%
  • Management consultants and business analysts 365%
  • Information technology managers and above 195%
  • Welfare, housing, youth and community workers 183%
  • Care workers and home carers 168%
  • Actors, dancers, entertainment presenters, producers and directors 156%
  • Financial managers 132%

It's notable that there has been growth for "IT managers and above," which means there is likely a lot of shifting going on for skilled IT positions below management. Is it possible that technologists have been doing their jobs so well that they may eventually drive their own professions into obsolescence? Data center automation is reducing the need for IT staff to schedule, provision and patch applications. High-speed networks make global outsourcing seamless. Cloud is making more applications available as services, versus needing to build and integrate functionality in house. Mobile and self-service apps take out the IT middlemen.

What's happening is the jobs that involved the "grunt work" of IT -- managing storage and networks -- may be subsumed by those with higher-level tasks, such as architecture. This view was reflected in a TechRepublic interview a couple years back with Howard Elias, COO for information infrastructure and cloud services at EMC, who put it this way: "There are not going to be fewer people involved in IT, but they will be involved in IT in different ways. If you are a server, storage or network admin, there may be fewer of those dedicated - what I call siloed component - skillsets needed."

In his interview with Nick Heath, Elias stated that demand will only grow for data center or cloud architects, which still require technical skills, but also "knowledge of how they integrate and interact together, and most importantly understand the management and automation that occurs on top of that to deliver that IT as a service," Elias states.

The Deloitte report says technology has promoted new job growth in the following ways:

Technology substitutes labor as a source of energy. Deloitte cites manufacturing and agriculture as prime examples of where mechanization had replaced human muscle power. This may be extended to the IT space as well -- for example, IT people no longer need to go from machine to machine across enterprises to update software or to check for issues.

Jobs are created for the drivers of technological change. As technologies rise, they create opportunities. Deloitte cites the growth of the telephone industry a few decades back, which created enormous demand for switchboard operators and line installers. Such functions are highly automated, but the industry continues to have an insatiable demand for developers and specialists who can build and operate the software to keep things running.

Technological change lowers expenditure on essentials, creating new demand and jobs. Anyone who has noticed the rise of opportunities in activities near the top of Maslow's hierarchy of needs pyramid -- home entertainment, gaming and app development -- can testify to the fact that people have a lot more discretionary income these days. As the report puts it: "technological progress allows consumers to meet existing needs at lower cost, enabling them to spend on more discretionary goods and services." Some IT opportunities may very well dry up within established industries, but there are new industries unknown even a decade ago that are hungry for talent.

Today's enterprises need skilled technology-savvy managers and professionals who can provide the guidance needed to navigate the digital landscape. There will be demand for many new types of skillsets emerging as time goes on.