How to Survive (and Thrive) in the Age of Robots: An Interview with Patrick Mullane of Harvard Business School

Thanks to advances in automation, robots can vacuum your floors, restock your fridge and even steal your job. Well, perhaps.

As robotics, software and artificial intelligence have grown more sophisticated, so experts have been grappling with how it might affect the workforce. A 2013 Oxford University study found that 47% of U.S. jobs may be lost to machines and software, while a 2016 study from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development puts that number at 9%, following an examination of single job tasks that could potentially be automated. Even so, the OSCE estimate a further 25% will change significantly due to advances in technology.

While the experts might go back and forth on the specifics of how much “the rise of the robots” will impact workers, there’s no doubt that organizations and employees will need to adapt to remain successful. But how? To dig deeper into this changing landscape and learn how employers and job seekers should respond, we talked with Patrick Mullane, executive director of HBX, Harvard Business School’s online learning platform.

How big is this threat?

It’s tempting to imagine a worst-case scenario in which millions of workers lose their jobs to machines. For instance, tech billionaires Bill Gates and Elon Musk are in the forefront of those voicing concerns about the future. However, automation is not a new phenomenon, and as Mullane points out, many of the jobs we lose may very well be replaced by different positions that require new skill sets.

This prediction is partly based on Mullane’s own leadership experience. Before working for Harvard, he was the CEO of a manufacturing firm that produced flexible materials for medical, transportation, industrial and electronic purposes. In this role, he had a front row seat for the impact of technology on employees working in traditional industries.

“What changed wasn’t that we didn’t need skilled people to help us manufacture things. It’s that we need skilled people who knew how to program a machine, versus somebody who knew how to do a manual setup and manually make a part. So I think that’s kind of a stereotypical poster child, if you will, for what automation technology is going to do to the economy.”

So while it may be impossible to predict how many jobs we’ll lose to automation, we can look forward and consider how learning new skills can prepare employees to take on the jobs of tomorrow.

From blue collar to white collar, the rise of the machines will impact everybody  

Who will be affected? Pretty much everybody, says Mullane:

“I say that anybody who leaves high school without, for example, basic Excel skills — it’s going to be a much tougher world for them. There’s not a job you’ll go into where you won’t touch a spreadsheet program, or word processing program, or an ERP system in a company that’s managing inventory production. There’s just nothing you can do anymore that isn’t going to have a technological edge.”

Mullane zeroes in on “middle skill jobs,” as especially susceptible to disruption. These are jobs that don’t necessarily require a bachelor’s degree but which do require a high school degree. In fact, according to Mullane, the change is already underway: Today, a higher level of technical knowledge is already expected from these employees and job candidates. The expectations for white collar workers will rise even higher, he adds:

“They may start moving up into things like data analytics, where a lot of companies can’t seem to find enough people who know how to work with the big data and crunch numbers,” says Mullane.

Millennials may not be learning the skills they need to succeed

According to Pew Research, millennials are on track to be the most educated generation in history, with a higher percentage of this generation earning bachelor’s degrees than any before them.

Could it be that this tech savvy generation has already gotten the (robot-generated) memo that blue collar and white collar workers need to bump up their skill levels to compete in a more automated workforce?

Not so fast, says Mullane. Although he agrees that plenty of young people are earning undergraduate degrees, he doubts that facility with tech in their personal lives always translates into the workplace. He also points out that many graduates still lack the skills they need to successfully compete in this changing job market.

“A lot of liberal arts programs don’t include what used to be included in liberal arts,” he says, pointing out that these courses once had heavy doses of science and math classes, which would equip graduates with more of the critical thinking skills necessary for evolving job roles.

But even if undergraduates are getting these skills along with the most relevant, up-to-date information available, the rapid rate of change can make it difficult — or impossible — for an undergraduate department to provide graduates with what they’ll need in the future.

“It’s hard to predict what you should be teaching so that five years down the road, students in your programs are going to have the skills they’re going to need,” Mullane says.

How should employers respond?

When there’s a shortage of candidates with the necessary knowledge and abilities, employers will have a harder time filling their existing and emerging positions with the right people. So what to do?

When Mullane faced this challenge in his days as a manufacturing CEO, he stopped focusing on finding candidates with specialized skill sets and instead began hiring for attitude and aptitude.

“Even if [I] hired somebody who had a lot of experience, I really wanted to have some sense they would be willing to learn something new and not resist change.”

In the future, this approach will become even more essential:

“If you hire somebody today with a perfect background, one thing you [can be] pretty confident about is that 10 years from now their job will have at least morphed into something different. So hiring for attitude and willingness to learn, combined with some basic foundational skills, might be a better way to go than looking for a specific skill.”

Along with adjusting their hiring requirements, companies can also reduce employee knowledge gaps by offering plenty of opportunities for training and continuing education.“Most companies would be crazy not to spend time and money trying to educate their own employees on the paths that they think they need to take to be successful,” says Mullane.

What should job seekers do?

Even if an employer has exceptional continuing education offerings, it’s ultimately up to professionals to shape their careers and fill in knowledge gaps, says Mullane.

The good news is that the rise of online education and training programs such as HBX and others can equip professionals with additional areas of knowledge that Mullane likes to think of as “just-in-time” learning.

Why just-in-time learning? Because these programs deliver education and training in concentrated online formats that allow students to access and absorb new information as they need it. Those who don’t take advantage may be left behind, says Mullane.

However, with flexible access to advanced knowledge of relevant topics, employees and job seekers can be proactive about their career development, remain ready for the newest advances in automation and, most importantly, keep their jobs safe from those robots.