In the movie “Hidden Figures,” which tells the true story of African-American women serving NASA as human “computers,” a pivotal moment is the arrival of IBM’s then newly invented data processor. The film would have been short and disappointing if Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer) had packed up her desk, feeling resigned to being replaced by a machine. Instead, she taught herself and her team to program computers.
Nearly sixty years later, talk abounds of jobs being eliminated by automation, and Vaughan’s response embodies three relevant lessons:
- Machines capable of performing tasks better and faster than humans will inevitably eliminate some of our work, but they don’t necessarily have to push us out of work.
- New technology requires new skills. If workers are willing to retool themselves, employers should provide them the resources or at least the time to do so.
- Jobs may become more interesting and employees more valuable as they adapt. Automation can eliminate drudgery and allow people to devote more time to their most important, creative, or profitable roles and potential.
Leaps in technology inspire some executives to want to trim ranks and recruit people with the latest skills, but overreliance on that approach is increasingly costly and inefficient. When technology is developing exponentially, how long will today’s latest skills hold their value?
What employers should value is a worker who is not only a self-starter but a self-restarter. That person will find—or demand—resources from schools, libraries, government, or businesses to get the training needed to continually adapt to changing technology. Society will have to underwrite the costs of this retraining, given how many workers already are struggling with college loan debt. But the payoff will be substantial if we can avoid having significant numbers of disenfranchised people.
In my book Startups & The Tech Revolution, I predicted that we will have to accept less job security and less steady employment as technology reshapes the workforce. People will have to be more self-reliant, retooling their skills four, five, or even ten times in their lives. But becoming more entrepreneurial about managing the work they choose to do, and integrating it with new technology, can open the way to productive new businesses, industries, and careers. Check out my website receive the first chapter of Startups & The Tech Revolution for free.