Wednesday February 21, 2024

Future of Work - I

August 04, 2017

There are some structural changes happening in the nature of employment, which are expected to gather momentum over the next decade, as a 4th industrial wave gathers momentum:

Specter of mass unemployment

First, robotics has already shifted a large number of traditional manufacturing jobs out of the West, and is making major inroads into East Asia, where the International Labor Union (ILO) estimates that 35% of manufacturing jobs are under threat. Indian textile company, Raymond, recently announced the replacement of 10,000 workers with robots. The price of agricultural robots, that till the soil, plant seeds, and dispense fertilizer, water, and pesticides, increasing crop production and reducing water consumption, is expected to drop to around $100 or 10,000 rupees in a few years. What that means is that industrialists and farmers will either have to employ robots or else become uncompetitive. The real question that arises is: Are we going to build robots, creating employment and value addition, or are we going to import robots?

Advances in artificial Intelligence (AI) are impacting all sectorsmuch like IT itself did a generation ago. Software coding, investment portfolio management, machine diagnostics, customer service and a host of other tasks are becoming automated. AI now diagnoses disease much better than human doctors, and young lawyers are finding it hard to land jobs in the USA because AI can do legal research better. Closer to home, SKMT Hospital is considering the purchase of an IBM Watson Cancer Diagnostics system. Ignite is funding a project in Lahore which uses AI to diagnose diseases in cows earlier and more accurately, increasing their life spans and dairy production. Telenor Pakistan is looking to phase out its customer service staff and replace it with Bots that provide automated responses to customer queries.

3D/4D printing is already being used to create house building material, consumer artifacts, and machinery components. Virtual Reality and holograms promise to replace physical objects with their virtual renditions.


Monis Rahman, CEO and founder of Rozee, a match-making online portal for the labor market, recently stated that: “For about a thousand new jobs advertised on this one portal daily, about 40,000 people apply.” What that translates to is that the economy is unable to find jobs for two million people entering the workforce annually, around one tenth of them college graduates, and a hundredth of them engineers, including computer engineers, thereby causing underemployment and unemployment. What opportunities and threats does the 4th industrial wave throw up, in addition?

A world of the self-employed

Second, in a competitive and dynamic business environment, firms seek agility by focusing on core competencies and outsourcing work to freelancers. Marc Andreeson, inventor of the Netscape browser, and a leading Venture Capitalist, announced in 2011 “software is eating up the world.” That is only truer today as companies scramble to find expertise in data sciences, cyber security, mobile programming, full stack web development and a perennially shifting smorgasbord of other tech, through marketplaces like Upwork and Crossover.

At the other end of the spectrum, micro work engagements, as short as fifteen minutes, to reformat a photograph, or to proof read a document, are surging through marketplaces like Crowd Flower. On the one hand, such marketplaces provide an opportunity to unemployed and underemployed youth, but on the other hand they commoditize the huge global supply of such services, drive down prices, and do not provide traditional corporate amenities like provident funds, retirement accounts, health insurance, and skills training. The lingua franca is English, and while we must preserve our native languages and heritage, we have to widely spread English language skills as well, if we are too cash into the opportunities of this new 4th industrial wave.

A new digital divide

Third, as a result of this wave, jobs and freelance assignments are being divided into high end, high paying ones, around ideation and creativity, data sciences, and human influential interaction such as sales, and low end ones, which tend to be repetitive and procedural in nature, and are increasingly being automated.  There is such a looming threat of mass unemployment that futuristic thought leaders like Elon Musk, founder of Tesla, SpaceX and Solarcity, are calling for a Universal Basic Income, which would be akin to providing Benazir Income Support to wide swaths of the Pakistani population. How can our work force land on the right size of this divide by being trained in skills that build on basic education, particularly in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math,) and that will be in demand in the future?

Individual seizes control of careertrajectory

Fourth, increasing de-corporatization and self-employment mean that people take on the responsibility of keeping their skills and knowledge updated themselves. Self-learning and continual learning, along with foundational skills, like initiative and time management, needs to be coded into our DNA. Universities will always lag due to the couple of years it takes to structure courses. That is why users of online training portals like Udacity, Coursera and EdExare growing exponentially. Yet, at a recent conference when the audience was asked how many had heard of Coursera, everyone raised their hands; when it was asked how many had taken courses on Coursera, eighty percent raised their hands, but when the audience was asked how many had actually completedcourses, only two to four percent raised their hands. How can courses keep trainees engaged at scale?

New government intervention needed

To address this looming digital skills gap, the Ignite Board and IT Minister Anusha Rehman set an aggressive target of training one million people in digital skills that would be in demand in the near future. The next article will provide the contours of this program.


By Yusuf Hussain, entrepreneur, angel investor and technology enthusiast, currently serving as CEO, Ignite (formerly National ICT R&D Fund)