Workforce Divide in the Intelligent Age

Scholarship Guide Workforce Divide in the Intelligent Age AI

We’ve been through this already – now for the fourth time. From steam engines to computers, major technologies across the last three Industrial Revolutions have displaced some existing jobs, but at the same time, they have generated significant productivity gains. Today, industries and businesses are adopting further advancements in Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics, the Internet of Things (IoT), 3D printing, genetic engineering, quantum computing, and other next-generation technologies. As the Fourth Industrial Revolution (aka Industry 4.0) unfolds, the global workforce faces transformation uncertainty.

As we transition from the digital to the intelligent age, many people worry about losing their jobs to automation and robots. While some jobs will be made redundant, it is hard to think that new ones will not be created. Think GPS systems that help you get around, Apple Siri’s response to your voice query, Netflix recommendations based on your movie consumption behaviour, and Facebook’s face recognition in its photo-tagging functionality. The advent of these innovations that are already technologies of yesterday has created millions of new products and services – and associated new jobs.

When One Door Closes, Another Opens

The World Economic Forum (WEF) predicts that by 2025, 85 million jobs may be displaced by a shift in the division of labour between humans and machines, while 97 million new roles may emerge as a result of adaption to the divide, bringing about a net gain of 12 million – across 15 industries and 26 economies. In response to workforce restructuring plans in view of deeper technological integration, 55% of the companies surveyed are looking to transform the composition of their value chain to introduce further automation. 43% of them expect to reduce the current workforce, whilst 34% plan to expand – creating new productivity-enhancing roles.

Meanwhile, McKinsey Global Institute has also developed scenarios for labour demand through 2030, showing additional labour demand between 21% to 33% of the global workforce (between 555 million and 890 million jobs), offsetting the number of jobs lost of 15% (400 million workers) in its midpoint scenario.

Scholarship Guide Workforce Divide in the Intelligent Age ATM

The Accountant & Bank Teller Story

Back in the days, the launch of spreadsheets and financial software products did not cause accountants to lose their jobs. Globalization, a growing economy, and a complex tax and regulatory environment continue to drive strong demand for accounting professionals.

When ATMs (Automated Teller Machines) were introduced in the 1970s, it became cheaper to operate a branch. As a result, the number of bank branches increased, employing more bank tellers. In these two cases, technology disruption did not displace accountants and bank tellers. Instead, they were upskilled to perform more complex work than they were doing before.

Accountants now spend less time number-crunching and focus more on quality control, analysis and making sound accounting judgements for businesses. In the same vein, instead of their structured, repetitive, and administrative work of cash handling every day, bank tellers now perform higher-value work such as helping bank customers address financial issues and offering product recommendations.

Scholarship Guide Workforce Divide in the Intelligent Age Robots

Intelligent Technologies Coming for The Service Sector

PWC’s international analysis of the potential long-term impact of automation has estimated varying automation rates across industries, from 52% for transportation and storage, 45% for manufacturing, a moderately high automatability estimate at 34% for the wholesale and retail trade sector, 21% for social work to just 8% for education.

While the rise of industrial robots has already reduced manufacturing employment significantly, Oxford Economics focuses the limelight on the services industries, suggesting an upcoming significant acceleration in automation and robot adoption.

  • Retail: The retail sector is ripe for widespread automation. Cashless payment and the dreaded “unattended item in packing area” message when you scan and pack your shopping are familiar scenarios. Robots are already displacing human workers in giant warehouses and logistics centres, and you can now sometimes find them walking down your grocery store aisle tracking inventory.
  • Healthcare: Automated rostering and other intelligent systems help to reduce paperwork and allow healthcare professionals to have more time to focus on patient care. Using robots across the hospital floors to perform tasks such as transporting medicine is a move to resolve care workers shortage in developed markets. Robot-assisted surgery allows doctors to perform procedures with more precision, resulting in reduced hospital stays and shortening recovery times.
  • Hospitality: Brick-and-mortar travel agents are disappearing rapidly. Chatbot platforms on travel booking sites are becoming more refined. Automatic baggage handling systems at airports are commonplace, and hotels employ robots to carry out simple room service calls. In the foodservice industry, restaurants are testing kitchen robots as the next step following installations of self-serving terminals to take customer orders.
  • Transport: Self-driving cars are the hype. However, the displacement of drivers with Autonomous Vehicle deployment is largely dependent on the pace of its transition, which will not likely be swift given its complex nature and current immature status, underlined by concerning news of accidents involving self-driving cars.
Scholarship Guide Workforce Divide in the Intelligent Age Drawing Board

Hard Skills, Soft Skills & The “T-shaped Person”

The intelligent age will precipitate demand for hard skills in eCommerce, user experience, big data, machine learning, software development, process automation, robotics engineering, cloud computing, information security, human-machine interaction, and blockchain – roles built on and enhanced by technology.

Automation replacing roles make sense only if it helps organizations accelerate productivity and efficiency, cut operations and infrastructure costs, and drive customer value. In delivering customer value, it is impossible not to have a human mind or human touch behind the effort as, after all, customers are humans themselves.

Robots and machines cannot demonstrate and replace human skills such as creativity, critical thinking, reasoning, persuasion, negotiation, communicating, interacting, empathy, resilience, and flexibility. Our society and industries continue to need leaders to make decisions and manage people. Emotional intelligence is a required leadership competency, and it is not what a robot or machine is capable of – at least not yet. As such, professions like teachers, nurses or lawyers are safe. Roles in Customer Service, Sales and Marketing, Training and Development, People and Culture, Organizational Development, and Innovation will retain or increase their value.

Companies are looking to hire full-stack business people who are capable of not only understanding technology but also adept in business and strategy. We may call these people the “T-shaped person” – with the vertical bar on the “T” representing the individual’s depth of knowledge in a unique skill(s), and the horizontal bar representing one’s ability to use the skill(s) to collaborate with others in different areas of expertise.

In time, we’ll have more robots working amongst us. Professionals who are capable of fostering collaboration between human and machines, and can explain complex algorithm outputs to non-technical people, bridge the gap between technologists and business people, and ensure that systems are operating properly, safely, and responsibly will be highly desired.

Scholarship Guide Workforce Divide in the Intelligent Age Coding

Continual & Agile Learning to Survive the Intelligent Age

Do not be left stranded beyond the next digital divide. A Culture of Learning, published in 2011, cited that 5 years is the “half-life of a skill”. “Half-life of skills” refers to how long skills are relevant in the workforce. Recent research suggests that constant technological changes are causing the “half-life of skills” to shrink rapidly, with WEF estimating that 40% of core skills will change in the next five years, and 50% of all employees will need reskilling.

Take an interest in technology. You do not need to be a techie to specialise in data analysis, digital marketing, and product management. Regardless of which sector you are in, be prepared to work alongside more computers and robots in the near future. Be flexible, adaptable, and willing to take on new tasks.

Adopt a mindset of agile learning and expand your skillset. Nurture soft skills that robots cannot perform. Build a culture of skills development and lifelong learning with the Singapore SkillsFuture initiative. Ensuring knowledge diversity and continual learning in your personal development can help keep you safe from being deemed irrelevant in time. In this intelligent age, no jobs are for life. Retraining and upskilling will become an essential part of the employment landscape.

Scholarship Guide Workforce Divide in the Intelligent Age Lego bricks

Forced by the hand of the COVID-19 pandemic, the fourth revolution pace has been accelerated, resulting in a double disruption. As workers adapt to remote working, it sheds new light for businesses on what can or cannot be done with and without infrastructures, giving them the confidence to transit towards automation to drive efficiency, potentially converting some roles into the gig economy.

Workforce transformation is also driven by other socio-economic developments including the rise of middle classes in emerging economies, demographic shifts – such as ageing populations, and increased investments in renewable energy driving creation of green economy jobs.

While the future may be unimaginable, there is much that can be done now to prepare for it. Keep an optimistic view and embrace changes. Stay ahead of the curve and keep your skillset up-to-date. Now, rather than always playing catch-up, is it not time for you to be the one to set the trend? After all, technology is a soaring exercise of the human imagination.

Learn more about Singapore’s future workplace in the age of AI.

Works Cited
World Economic Forum. The Future of Jobs Report. 2020. Accessed 1 May 2021.

McKinsey Global Institute. Jobs lost, jobs gained: What the future of work will mean for jobs, skills, and wages. 2017. Accessed 1 May 2021.

PwC UK. Will robots really steal our jobs? 2018. Accessed 1 May 2021.

Oxford Economics. How Robots Change the World. 2019. Accessed 1 May 2021.

Thomas, Douglas, and John Seely Brown. A New Culture of Learning. Createspace. 2011.