Forget Robots—People Skills Are the Future of American Jobs

Automation may be gutting American manufacturing jobs, but there’s one thing the robots still can’t beat us at: people skills.

It just so happens that the future of American labor will require a lot of them.

The occupations projected to add the most jobs in the next 10 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, all require people skills—like home health aides, registered nurses, and retail and service workers.

Yet the jobs the president-elect has focused on reviving—mostly in manufacturing, dominated by men—are the ones most vulnerable to being replaced by robots, not the ones that are in highest demand or expected to grow the fastest.

Automation accounts for the bulk of manufacturing job loss in the U.S.—88 percent of it from 2000 to 2010, the decade with the sharpest drop in these jobs, Ball State University researchers found. And many, many people have argued that even if Donald Trump manages to keep some factory jobs in the U.S., he can’t reverse the automation trends that have already decimated jobs. Even he agrees.

So imagine what happens when automation kills computer programming, accounting, or financial analyst jobs. That either is already happening or will soon.

“Anything that has a routine to it can be automated,” said Ravin Jesuthasan, the managing director of the global talent practice at Willis Towers Watson, the HR consulting firm. “Artificial intelligence is doing to white-collar jobs what robotics has long been doing to blue-collar jobs.”

About half of U.S. employment is at risk of automation, according to one highly cited paper from 2013, and about 6 percent of jobs will be replaced by robots in just the next five years, according to research by Forrester. The most routine jobs, like driving, are the most vulnerable—but even the financial sector could potentially automate about half of its day-to-day tasks, a McKinsey report found.

“There’s been this huge value placed on technical skills for the longest time, and that’s what’s eroding the fastest,” added Jesuthasan. “We allowed demand to bid up wages. Now the machines are taking over many of those high-premium activities, and we’re going to start seeing the wage premiums come down quickly.”

The future of American labor lies in jobs that require empathy and critical thinking.

For an office worker, that could mean being able to communicate across departments. For someone in customer service, it’s interacting with another complicated human. For a care provider, it’s the empathy to help someone vulnerable and in need.

These are all skills robots are really bad at—at least for now. And they have, over the last three decades, become increasingly vital in the labor market.

Between 1980 and 2012, the share of the labor force occupied by jobs requiring “high social skills” grew by almost 10 percentage points, according to a National Bureau of Economic Relations paper last year called “The Growing Importance of Social Skills in the Labor Market.”

That’s true even in fields not typically thought to require social skills. Tech and finance companies are increasingly putting a premium on people with social skills for jobs in areas like product management, marketing, and business strategy. And even as demand and wages have risen overall for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) jobs, wages have risen the most for those STEM workers with high social skills, the NBER study found. 

Indeed, employers report that social skills are just as important as technical skills, and harder to hire for.

“You can look at these hard numbers: The economy is rewarding these skills,” said Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, the director of the Hamilton Project, an offshoot of the Brookings Institution that focuses on economic issues. “More dollars get paid to people who have these skills. They’re not ‘soft’—I’m sorry. It makes me crazy.”

Still, many empathy jobs pay a lot less than factory work. Home health aides make around $22,000 per year—about half of what someone on the production line at a steel mill might make in a year, according to the BLS.

“These aren’t great jobs,” said David Deming, a researcher at Harvard who wrote the NBER paper. “If your focus was how to get more men into pink-collared jobs, it’s how to make these jobs better jobs.”

Deming suggests labor unions, more earned-income tax credits, or wage-subsidy programs could help.

But other research suggests, perhaps counterintuitively, that just convincing more men to take those jobs could make them more attractive.

Fields dominated by women tend to pay less—but once men enter them, pay goes up, one study found. Women’s work, the research found, tends to get devalued at least in part because of bias.

“It just doesn’t look like it’s as important to the bottom line or requires as much skill,” Paula England, a sociology professor at New York University, told the New York Times. “Gender bias sneaks into those decisions.”

Still, despite the high pay and demand, men have only slowly begun gravitating toward higher-paying work that requires empathy skills, like nursing. As of 2011, men made up just under 10 percent of registered nurses in the U.S., up from less than 3 percent in 1970.

The resistance, some economists say, is gendered. “Some of the decline in work among young men is a mismatch between aspirations and identity,” Lawrence Katz, a professor of economics at Harvard University, said in an interview with the Atlantic. “Taking a job as a health technician has the connotation as a feminized job.”

Those so-called feminized jobs, however, are the ones the robots—at least for now—can’t take from us.


Rebecca Greenfield

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