Artificial Intelligence AI
Technology may well turn out to be the solution to problems created by the changing job environment. iStock

The word 'technology' has had a number of different associations in the last fifty years. In the 1960s, the 'white heat of technology' was a phrase used in places like the UK to suggest how its power could help the country compete better with the likes of Germany and Japan.

During the early years of this century, many businesses re-invented themselves as 'technology' companies to harness the forces unleashed by the dotcom boom.

More recently, the cycle has moved on again. The rise of technology has created fears around job security. If self-driving robot cars - built by machines in factories that don't need employees - will ferry people to and from work, or the shops, what exactly in the future role of the worker?

While there is indeed potential for Artificial Intelligence and robotics to make some types of work redundant, we should not be surprised or overly afraid, but rather must come to grips with how to harness technology.

Change has been a constant theme throughout economic history. Think, for example, of the Luddites - English textile workers in the 19th century who destroyed weaving machinery because they were worried about the impact of this new technology on their jobs, eventually creating roles in other industries.

The reality is that technological innovation has always been with us. And will always be with us. While this has meant some jobs disappear, others are created. Even now, in a world where technological change is proceeding at breakneck speed, countries such as the US and the UK are seeing virtually full levels of employment.

We cannot ignore the legitimate pain of those whose jobs have been made redundant by technology, but we cannot be frightened by the consequences of technological innovation. There is an approach sometimes used by historians to consider "counterfactual histories."

Suppose a history where the washing machine, automobile, internet, or mobile phone had not been invented. Try to imagine how the rest of world might be now. Is it better or worse? In most cases, while the path to progress is not without problems, few would roll back the clock.

Looking forward, technology may well turn out to be the solution to problems created by the changing job environment. I am particularly intrigued by technologies which can help people be prepared for and find jobs, and by technologies that might help employers find the best workers—regardless of their connections and pedigrees.

On preparing people for new jobs, as an experiment, I signed up for a computer coding programme online. While I am not seeking a new career as a coder, I could see how it and other online programmes can give workers new skills at low costs.

On helping people find jobs, I am astounded by the power of LinkedIn to connect people to new employment. A more localised version of this is a company called inploi, founded by one of our alumni.

They have created a job matching service for low-skilled workers. It's early days, but this type of innovation demonstrates how technology can work to solve problems of changing skills requirements, not create them.

Finally, the entire HR-tech field, especially that part that helps employers figure out who will do a good job at the job, rather than who went to school with whom, is promising for increasing the equality of opportunity.

A new global study by Oxford Saïd Business School, due for publication later this year, has found that of young people who are graduates or recent graduates aged 19-26, the majority see themselves as having more than one career. It's clear the workforce of the future is becoming more confident about navigating its way around technological change.

At a higher level, we have an opportunity to rethink the timing and structure of education. Our education system is still predicated essentially on churning out people in their late teens or early twenties for a single career – be it in manufacturing or the service industries.

This needs to change. With people working longer, and the need to quickly embrace technological change becoming more urgent, there's a pressing need for continual retraining, with workers set to have multiple careers during their lifetime.

Employees need to be empowered with the ability to make the most of whichever direction the jobs market goes in, emphasising the diversity these careers could take.

We must, for example, find ways for those aged over 40 to continue to find work – being able to learn new skills more quickly when necessary. In order to remain useful, we must continue to retrain throughout our working life to accommodate multiple career life cycles.

And the systems need to be in place to allow that to happen. Employers need to be more open to the people they are willing to hire, and must seek to identify transferable skills which they deem relevant to their business.

It's no surprise that the whirl of news around things like robotics, self-driving transport, Artificial Intelligence and so on leaves people questioning their future. They shouldn't.

With a more flexible attitude to education and the workplace; employers, employees and potential employees should focus more on the positive opportunities the new types of work will require, and harness technology to find it. Rather than having machines take our jobs, perhaps they can help us find the next one.


Peter Tufano was appointed Peter Moores Dean and Professor of Finance at Saïd Business School in July 2011 and is a Professorial Fellow at Balliol College, University of Oxford. He is a prolific scholar and course developer, a seasoned academic leader, a social entrepreneur, and an advisor to business and government leaders.