Future-Proof Jobs

“Future-proof” jobs don’t require futuristic skills

By Melanie Vuynovich on March 21, 2019

What do insurance underwriters, short-order cooks, bank tellers, and lab technicians have in common?

According to Oxford University, they’re all working in jobs that have at least a 90 percent chance of being automated.  

At first glance, that’s an intimidating statistic. If four jobs that require such vastly different skills are all at high risk of automation, will any jobs be available to human workers in a few decades?

Fortunately, the same Oxford University report did find that plenty of jobs have a very low automation risk — around 10 percent, or in some cases, much less. According to the report, these “future-proof” jobs include medical services managers, computer network administrators, and sales supervisors.

Although none of the jobs on either list — automatable or “future-proof” — are especially similar on the surface, there are some common themes. Jobs such as underwriting and lab work consist primarily of highly repetitive, specialized tasks, and don’t require much verbal or written communication. Non-automatable, ‘robot-proof’  jobs, on the other hand, involve lots of interaction — from pitching a client, to coaching a direct report, to discussing the pros and cons of different solutions with colleagues — and also require a fair amount of non-routine, nuanced decision-making.

These rough definitions make sense in light of what we know about the relative strengths of humans and machines. Machines are outstanding at optimizing specialized processes and executing very precise routines — but they can’t match humans in empathy or creativity, and their ability to interpret contextual signals (e.g., body language) is inconsistent at best.  

At Foundry College, we’ve integrated this perspective into all aspects of our curriculum to develop one of higher education’s first truly future-proof degrees. Students in our Associate Degree in Business Management program begin their education with us by focusing on developing three key sets of skills and knowledge that make a job — or an employee — more likely to be “future proof:”

  • Complex communication: Jobs are unlikely to be automated if they require employees to communicate complex ideas clearly, and to adapt their message, framing, and tone for different audiences.
  • Critical thinking: Even if the technology existed, employers aren’t likely to turn big decisions over to machines anytime soon. Employees who can evaluate arguments, compare solutions, and select a “best” option based on the right combination of data and intuition, will be in high demand for decades to come.
  • Problem solving: Computers are brittle systems — they don’t improvise well, and it only takes one unexpected event to bring an automated system to its virtual knees. That means that even as routine tasks are automated, businesses will still need humans to supervise, think creatively on their feet, and implement both quick fixes and long-term improvements.

The list above illustrates an important point — future-proof jobs don’t require the knowledge and skills we often associate with the capital-F “Future.” In fact, some futuristic-sounding jobs are at higher risk of automation than you might think; for example, computer programmers have almost a 50% chance of being replaced by machines. There are hundreds of jobs that rely on uniquely human skills, and you don’t need a deep technical background to qualify for one.