How To Automation-Proof Your Career

As the world’s population gets older and labor-force growth slows, more companies are likely to turn to automation to plug gaps in their talent pool, according to the new Labor 2020 report by Bain & Co.

This trend could help maintain the economic productivity needed to pay pensions and fund healthcare, but the rapid spread of automation may eliminate 20-25% of current jobs and depress wage growth for many more workers, Bain notes.

Retraining workers whose jobs have become obsolete may not be enough, if there aren’t positions for them to move into, says Karen Harris, managing director of Bain & Company’s Macro Trends Group, who wrote the report with colleagues Austin Kimson and Andrew Schwedel. “There’s no easy solution,” says Harris.

Bain & Co.

Karen Harris, a managing director at Bain & Co., predicts that automation could lead to the equivalent of 40 million displaced workers in a new report.

Nonetheless, there is one thing that many of us can deploy to avoid getting pushed aside. As the report notes, the emerging economy will favor highly-skilled workers. If you invest time in developing and sharpening the skills that will be needed in the future, you’re likely to find yourself in a very strong position

And fortunately, in many new and emerging fields, you can pick up the knowledge you need without going back to school for a new degree. You may have opportunities to learn on the job or by tapping into digital courses, online masterminds, Audible books, and other free and low-cost tools.

“It’s less of an age or generational phenomenon and more of a mindset,” says Rich Pearson, senior vice president of marketing for Upwork.

In the not-so-distant future, those who develop valued skills and take advantage of trends such as the growth of the internet and smartphones, new social media and cloud-based technologies to start their own businesses could find themselves in a position where they can command a major premium.

“It’s never been easier to start a business,” notes Harris. “That will get easier.”

Fortunately, there is a lot of emerging data available on which skills will be in demand.

The lists of top skills that freelance platforms such as Upwork compiles are often early harbingers of key labor market trends, providing valuable ideas for anyone who wants to get in front of them. Recently, for instance, Upwork shared with me a list of “Top 20 Lucrative Skills for Freelancers,” based on the hourly rates freelancers are charging.

Here are the top 20 best-paid skills from Upwork’s list:

    1. Network analysis ($200)
    2. Computer vision ($145)
    3. io ($140)
    4. Neural networks ($140)
    5. Firmware engineering ($130)
    6. Hardware prototyping ($130)
    1. Cloud computing ($125)
    2. Intellectual property law ($120)
    3. Trade law ($115)
    4. Privacy law ($115)
  1. Spatial analysis ($110)
  2. Apple Watch ($110)
  3. NetSuite development ($110)
  4. Acquisition strategy ($110)
  5. Algorithm development ($100)
  6. Software debugging ($100)
  7. Digital signal processing ($100)
  8. Ad lyrics writing ($100)
  9. Natural language processing ($100)
  10. Data processing ($100)

The data was based on average hourly rates for U.S. freelancer billings from January 1, 2017 to December 7, 2017.

Want to look beyond this to where the market is heading? These were the top 20 fastest-growing skills on Upwork in Q4 2017. (If you’re unfamiliar with what some of the more specialized fields actually do, the press release offers some explanation.)

  1. Bitcoin
  2. Amazon DynamoDB
  3. React native
  4. Robotics
  5. Go development
  6. Forex trading
  7. 3D rigging
  8. Augmented reality
  9. Computer vision
  10. Penetration testing
  11. Media buying
  12. io
  13. Shopify development.
  14. AngularJS development
  15. Swift development
  16. Video editing
  17. Influencer marketing
  18. Machine learning
  19. 3D modeling
  20. Motion graphics

The list may seem random, but as Pearson points out,“There are certainly common threads and specific skills underneath them–AI, robotics, computer vision and machine learning. This is really one umbrella set of skills.” The needs for skills related to cryptocurrencies and blockchain have also influened the list, Pearson notes.

For many of us, the best way to get in front of trends toward automation and the digital revolution is to find work in our own fields that ties into such fields. For instance, a publicist now concentrating on targeting traditional media could deploy many of the same skills in influencer marketing.

“Freelancers across age groups are re-skilling themselves more rapidly and seeing a ton of success as a result,” says Pearson.

One key to success will be making regular time for learning, no matter how cutting-edge our skills are today. Staying relevant in our fields is going to be a long game–and in a freelance business, there is little room for error. You don’t get paid if you’re offering skills the market doesn’t need.

“The half-life of technical skills is decreasing,” Pearson says. “It’s now less than five years. A skill that is valuable today will only be half as valuable in five years.”

Many free agents understand this very well, because they’ve seen demand for certain skills they have dry up almost overnight and requests for new types of services emerge.

The real challenge for many of us will be an emotional one. We’ll need to adjust to a very fast-changing world where we, as workers, play a bigger role in our own economic security than even many of today’s freelancers are accustomed to–and the risks of getting sidelined loom larger than they are now.

Maintaining the mental outlook, careful financial habits and sustained personal energy to make the most of the situation and dodge the hazards will be increasingly important, especially for those who become self-employed. “When we think about entrepreneurship, it’s more flexible but also more insecure,” notes Harris.

This new environment may end up challenging some of our traditional assumptions about doing business. Being willing to collaborate with other free agents in your industry could become more important for survival than beating them to new revenue, for instance, if you’re all trying to find new ways to stay in the game amidst rapid change.

Clearly, continuing to do what we’re doing –no matter how successfully — isn’t going to work for very long. What will is getting into the habit of looking around the corner a lot more frequently and adjusting to it very quickly.

Elaine Pofeldt is author of The Million-Dollar, One Person Business (Random House, January 2, 2018), a book looking at how to break $1M in revenue in a business staffed only by the owners.