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When the robots come

EVERTON PRYCE

Sunday, July 07, 2019

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The die has been cast: With the galloping robotisation of the world economy, small-island states like Jamaica will witness in the ensuing years further massive global job displacement as a result.

According to the latest findings of the UK-based private research firm Oxford Economics, this disruptive phenomenon will lead, ultimately, to an unprecedented quantitative widening of existing lower-income skills-gap, even while it positively boosts productivity, stimulates economic growth, and create new automation-driven jobs. ( https://hardware.slashdot.org/story/19/06/25/2224258/robots-to-take-20-million-jobs-worsening-inequality-study-finds)

The analysis group further argues that in approximately 11 years from now, some 20 million displaced workers around the world will be confronted with the stark and depressing reality that the jobs lost to manufacturing will find no suitable replacement in the service sector, because existing jobs to be found there would have been squeezed by the process of rapid automation. In fact, the group forecasts that by 2030 we could see something in the region of 14 million robots put to work in China alone.

A worsening climate of social and material grievances and inequality is therefore expected to blanket the world even as automation and robotics promise a prospective US$5 trillion “robotics dividend” for the global economy by 2030 from higher productivity.

For us in this former outpost of Empire, dressed in the pretence of modern-day symbols of prosperity, these important findings come not only in the context of a raging international debate about the use of technologies, as a going concern, vis--vis self-driving cars and trucks, robotic food preparation, and automated factory and warehouse operations and their impact on employment.

The study's findings are released, more critically, just when we in Jamaica are engaged in a national conversation about the received wisdom and usefulness of the newly introduced Primary Exit Profile (PEP) examinations in replacing the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT). PEP, we are told, will go beyond testing students' knowledge to assessing 21st century skills, including critical thinking and communication.

But in light of the “brave new world” of robotics advancing towards us, how far will assessment methodologies like PEP go in getting our pupils to understand the global nature of our own provenance and the development of our creative intellect and creative imagination?

For if we should hold up the mirror to ourselves forecasting the impact of technology on the future world of work here, would we not have to be prepared to acknowledge that there might be the need to break the mirror to escape the reality?

I pose the problem in this way because as we try to make sense of a society that is struggling to find itself on many levels, and grasp the idea that we must find our own soil in which to plant our feet if we are to produce at the levels we say we want to, it is critical that we face the essential fact that, with or without an assessment tool like PEP, those leaving school now, and in the future, including graduates of our universities, will require a radically new range of skills, not just scores. And this, to my way of thinking, is most important — not least because over the life of their careers they are likely to have an average of 17 jobs or more in at least five different fields of employment. What this means, in effect, is that while core skills like mathematics, writing and science will no doubt remain of importance, the employers of the future, according to every available evidence, will demand new ones like collaboration, coding, digital literacy, fluency in languages, critical thinking, creativity, and entrepreneurial skills.

And I would even go further and disruptively suggest that if our young students today are to stand a reasonable chance of going beyond survival and prosper in the robotic and technologically-driven world of the remaining 21st century, they will need to be taught from now how to convince future employers they are of greater value and usefulness in the work space than robots and computer programmes.

How we achieve this is not abundantly clear at this precise moment. But what is without doubt is that our present crop of leaders, including captains of industry, education administrators, professionals, and policy determiners, need to start thinking seriously on this issue if we are to stem the crisis in governance which is everywhere evident in the independent Caricom Caribbean.

My plea to those responsible for leadership of Jamaica's education process is to act quickly before technologically-driven progressive companies and employers choose to bypass our school and exam system in search of skills set capable of working digitally, flexibly and collaboratively.

The best way for our schools and universities to service industry is to prepare students for the future world of work where there is no distinction between the physical and online worlds and where work experience forms the core curriculum.

According to the World Bank, in approximately six years from now, close to 750 million persons will join the gig economy. In the age of the emerging gig economy consisting of Uber, Airbnb, Lyft, websites like Airtasker, and the migration of 5G, our schools cannot be concerned with simply preparing our young people for their first jobs. The goal must be to prepare them for their last job.

As I have said before in this space, and it's worth repeating, multiple thousands of our children entering primary schools today will end up working in completely new jobs that do not yet exist, and using technologies that have not yet been invented. As such, a great many will also not be able to find jobs promising incremental progression over their lifetime.

So, in preparing for the full-scale arrival of the robots in the workplace, how are employers to responds if our schools and universities are not preparing our young people for the modern world of work? The buzz from within the corridors of some of our major private sector entities is that absent importing suitably qualified workers to meet their needs going forward, they are prepared to consider devising their own online courses geared towards industry needs.

The ideal response, of course, is for our schools, businesses and universities to collaborate in preparing our young people for the jobs that are to come on stream in the age of robotics. An example is already being set by the University of the Commonwealth Caribbean (UCC), as it seeks to expand its on-demand multimedia video-based courses geared towards the needs of industry as a direct response to the emerging challenge.

In any event, the only successful schools of the future in Jamaica, as much as elsewhere in the world when the robots come, will be those that regard preparation for work and problem-solving as more important than preparing its students for narrow exams. As many educators today who practise their craft in the lecture halls of universities and classrooms across Jamaica can attest, qualities such as compassion, humour, and honesty are increasingly being regarded as important to what some deem “paper qualification”.

So, if Jamaica acts quickly, smartly, and with bipartisan zeal, we can perhaps save a great many of our young people from being among the 400 million to 800 million people worldwide who could be displaced by technology and need to find a job by 2030. For the die, indeed, has been cast.


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