How the workforce will change within the many years to return: MIT report

The predictions were frightening. One day, half of the jobs in developed countries could be taken over by robots. What Would Workers Do? How would they make a living?

In 2018, a task force at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology set out to answer these questions. Over the next two years, more than 20 faculty members and 25 PhD students were distributed around the world, from Scandinavia to Germany, and surveyed around 200 companies to get a better view of the future of work.

The researchers found that the more pressing threat wasn't necessarily what we imagined. Sure, robots and artificial intelligence kept getting more powerful, but most companies expected the technology to create new and different jobs rather than reducing their overall position.

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The bigger problem is that the US has "created a labor market where the fruit is so unevenly distributed and upwardly sloping that the majority of workers have only tasted a tiny bite of a huge harvest," the report said. Real wages have not risen much since the 1970s, and most of the increases have focused on white workers.

CNBC spoke to Elisabeth Reynolds, the executive director of the MIT Work of the Future Task Force, about their new 92-page report on technology and the workforce. The interview has been compressed and edited for reasons of clarity.

CNBC: You write that technology doesn't eliminate work, it changes it. What are some of the new jobs we might see in the future that aren't there now?

Elisabeth Reynolds: Lots of robot jobs, whether in manufacturing or logistics. We will have a whole new suite of maintenance workers who will work on new autonomous vehicles that are emerging. There will be telemedicine administrators to help patients ahead of an appointment, guide them through how the technology works, and familiarize them with it.

CNBC: How can people who are currently unemployed who are considering a career change or are about to enter the job market best prepare for these changes and ensure they continue to be hired?

HE: What is changing in terms of the demand for workers is the desire to have some level of comfort with technology, be it data analysis or work with tablets, as well as social skills and real comfort with human interaction. Some research shows that the social side is even more important than the technical side.

CNBC: You have found that our fear of robots taking over in the labor market is largely exaggerated. Why do you think we have overestimated how much technology will crowd out workers?

HE: Today's fears about technology are based on very legitimate fears about people's economic security. For the majority of workers who do not have a four-year degree, wages have essentially stagnated.

CNBC: Other countries that are also experiencing major technological changes don't have such a bad problem with wage stagnation, the report says. What is the US doing wrong?

HE: Labor market institutions and policies do not adequately support moderate wage workers. The US has been extremely lagging behind in providing organizational opportunities for workers. We also have a minimum wage that couldn't keep up in real terms; It's the same level today as it was in the 1950s.

CNBC: Why won't technology be as threatening to workers as we once thought?

HE: While technology is on the horizon, it won't come overnight. It takes some time. And that gives us the opportunity to adapt from the workforce's perspective. We also see employers step back and say, "Wait a minute, is it really better to replace workers, or can we find technology that actually replaces some tasks and augments other tasks?" The change occurs more at the task level than at the job level. There is a collaborative side to technology that enables this human-robot interaction.

CNBC: How can we ensure that workers displaced by technological change have the opportunity to find new jobs in new industries?

ER: We propose that people have access to affordable education and training. I think there is a real opportunity to help people transition and train workers without a four year degree. There is currently an interesting example from Michigan where anyone who has been on the frontline during Covid can attend community college for free. It's a great new piece on the GI bill.

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