Banking on technology to create jobs of the future

Ehtesham Shahid

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Building a career in India of the late 1990s was like getting caught between devil and the deep sea. Traditional professions such as medicine, engineering and law were the elusive devil while information technology (IT) was the deep sea. The choice was clear though. If one couldn’t become a doctor, or an engineer, the quickest way to salvage the situation was to become the quintessential IT graduate.

Suddenly one would be considered smarter than the rest. Jobs were aplenty and going abroad – especially to the Silicon Valley – was always on the cards. Taking a cue from other sectors, and lured by fat paychecks, several coworkers in the media jumped on the dotcom bandwagon. A widespread herd mentality perpetuated this cycle.

While a lot of this zest was lost following the dotcom bust, IT continued to create significant volume of jobs. Practitioners of this craft gained social ascendancy even though they still didn’t have the respectability associated with being a doctor or an engineer. A farmer would be happier if his son learnt computers instead of engaging in agriculture, even if that meant unharvested crops.

Employability was the biggest factor, which IT then promised. It encompassed various sectors and almost all traditional brick-and-mortar companies had to have at least some kind of IT-interface, creating jobs that didn’t exist a generation ago. This may be anecdotal evidence from one country but the pattern was similar elsewhere too.

The cycle of growth, however, seems to be losing momentum or is at least undergoing fundamental reorientation. Recent reports suggest that in India, as many as 200,000 IT engineers stand to lose jobs in the next 3 years. The reason being attributed to this turnaround is “under-preparedness in adapting to newer technologies”.

Despite the robust growth in the number of IT-related jobs all over the world, something still seems amiss in the demand-supply equation, especially considering the fact that over 4 billion people are still offline

Ehtesham Shahid

The future of work

With the rise of artificial intelligence, augmented reality and virtual reality, the traditional bread-and-butter information technology doesn’t guarantee employment. Those aware of the situation are either re-tooling or looking for greener pastures. The government is running various programs the results of which will only be known in the future.

Irrespective of the circumstances leading to job losses, we are faced with a different set of reality today. The IT revolution witnessed in the last 30 years may have pulled millions out of poverty but it now poses a new set of challenges for jobseekers as well as policymakers.

This is manifesting differently in different parts of the world. A Newsweek report says that brick-and-mortar retailers in the US are hemorrhaging jobs – 90,000 since last October – while Jeff Bezos, the founder of online retailer Amazon, has become the nation’s second richest man.

According to McKinsey & Company, 30-45 percent of the working-age population around the world remains underutilized, which translates into around 850 million people in the US, UK, Germany, Japan, Brazil, China, and India alone. Clearly, the benefits of IT revolution hasn’t reached their end.

Automation attack

The study also suggests that, on a global scale, the adaptation of automation technologies could affect 50 percent of the world economy, or 1.2 billion employees and $14.6 trillion in wages. This suggests that this asset can very quickly turn into a liablity.
Until very recently, there was widespread belief that technology is creating more jobs than it destroys. I am not sure it continues to be the case now.

We can probably seek solace from the McKinsey estimate that it may take at least two decades before automation reaches 50 percent of all of today’s work activities. That may suggest that we are 20 years away from a full-blown crisis but it may also mean the greater the automation, the more redundant human skills would become.

Fact remains that, despite the robust growth in the number of IT-related jobs all over the world, something still seems amiss in the demand-supply equation, especially considering the fact that over 4 billion people, or half of the world’s population, is still offline and 75 percent of this offline population is concentrated in only 20 countries.

Let us first make them all equal and then let technology unleash the automation we seem to be eagerly waiting for.
Ehtesham Shahid is Managing Editor at Al Arabiya English. For close to two decades he has worked as editor, correspondent, and business writer for leading publications, news wires and research organizations in India and the Gulf region. He loves to occasionally dabble with teaching and is collecting material for a book on unique tales of rural conflict and transformation from around the world. He can be reached at [email protected] and his twitter handle is @e2sham.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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