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How to keep your job when robots take over

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By Stephanie Swensrude

Automation and artificial intelligence is already changing the workplace. There’s self-checkout in grocery stores, self-driving cars, and robots in Amazon warehouses. It can feel uncertain entering the job market in the 2020s when you’re not sure if your job will still exist in ten years.

In the same vein, the half-life of skills is dropping dramatically. For students who went to NAIT in the 80s, their skills would be relevant for about 12 years. For current students, their skillset might be outdated in as little as two years.

For example, a marketing grad in 2017 wouldn’t have heard of TikTok, but it is now one of the most popular and influential apps. A TV student in 2018 would have never been allowed to shoot videos on their iPhone, but now it’s a regular practice in news stations to film on a smartphone.

David McDine, Director of Strategic Initiatives at NAIT, leads a variety of special projects at NAIT. They are working to make sure students have what it takes to fill in the gaps that AI can’t fill.

Career essential skills that can’t be done by a computer

“If you think about what a computer does really well, it adheres to a set of rules to complete a specific task,” they said. 

But there are tasks that require complex human skills that robots aren’t able to do: imagination, empathy, negotiation, and strategy. These are things that make us distinctly human, like the ability to make someone feel welcome or to express a complex idea in a simple way.

These skills, McDine said, are what students need to learn in order to stay relevant in the job market.

They also mentioned the increasing focus on equity, diversity and inclusion and how cultural intelligence will be paramount to success in the years to come.

Cultural intelligence is related to emotional intelligence. Where a highly emotionally intelligent person is able to pick up on the emotions, wants, and needs of others, cultural intelligence is about tuning into the beliefs and values of those from another cultural background.

“Those sort of things that make us uniquely human will help in a career where more and more things will be pushed over to our computer companions,” said McDine.

Lifelong learning

McDine also emphasized the importance of committing to lifelong learning. One way to do this is through microcredentials, which are a complement to traditional education. Students can earn microcredentials before, during or after a diploma or degree program. It may become common to return to school a few times throughout your career to upgrade your knowledge in ever-changing industries. 

For example, five years after graduating from the Computer Engineering Technology program, a student may return to NAIT to learn a new programming language that didn’t even exist when they graduated.

There are also many online options for smaller microcredential courses such as LinkedIn Learning, which is free to NAIT students. Coursera, which saw a spike in popularity during the pandemic, is another program leading the charge with microcredentials.

Meaning revolution

Overall, McDine is optimistic about the future. By leveraging deep technical expertise and strengthening our uniquely human skills in spaces such as creativity and empathy, NAIT students can set themselves up for a rewarding, meaningful career. 

“If you’re adaptive and build up your lifelong learning muscle, there is going to be a lot of opportunity for you,” they said.

When humans no longer have to do the menial things that can be done by computers, jobs will have more of these very human skills being used: complex problem solving, dreaming and imagining.

“There could be what I call a meaning revolution, where people feel a lot more connected to their work and… the projects they work on,” said McDine.

“There’s a lot more opportunity to find a fit between what you love to do and what your skill set is.” 

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