When we look to the Future of Work, it is often with an eye to the final destination. To an age where mankind will not just use machines for work, but alongside them as, in a strange sense, colleagues.
But no matter the furious pace at which the technology of tomorrow evolves, the future is being shaped slowly, gradually, and has been long before concepts like automation and artificial intelligence became matters of fact.
Today, we see this process manifested in the growing polarisation of the workforce, and the death of the middle-skilled worker. It’s a slow death, the origins of which can be traced back to the 1980s, and one that will ultimately end with somewhere between 33% and 50% of workers looking for entirely new lines of work.
To clarify, a middle-skilled worker is defined as someone who has obtained some kind of post-secondary education, short of an advanced degree. These might include people with vocational certification, completed apprenticeships, or some university experience shy of a bachelor’s degree. These are people doing routine work in manufacturing, clerical, construction and transport, amongst a range of other fields. They make a living wage and, statistically, have enjoyed the benefits of full-time employment.
What makes this schism so intriguing is how it has been measured over the last five years. While one researcher claimed there had been a nearly 5% rise in the amount of trained middle-skill workers between 2006 and 2012, others have reported on a ‘middle-skill gap’ that has made it difficult for employers to fill key positions.
So which is it? Is the middle-skilled workforce growing or shrinking, and are workers able to meet its needs?
The answer can be gleamed from a recent study from Princeton University, which shockingly revealed that 94% of jobs created in the US between 2005 and 2015 were hired for temporary work rather than traditional employment. That brought the percentage of ‘gig based’ workers up from 10.7% to 15.8% – a rise of about 5%.
It’s no coincidence. Nor is it coincidence that middle-skilled jobs are most at risk to automation over the next decade.
Major employers recognise what the future holds. They know that long-term employment of the middle-skilled will soon be a thing of the past.
And so the impetus is placed on the middle-skilled themselves, who now face a desperate choice: apply for jobs in which they would be overqualified and receive less money and benefits, or try to adapt for high-skill work.
The former obviously leaves them in a terribly tenuous position, and the inevitable feeling that they failed to meet their potential is bound to have serious repercussions for many. But the former is just as hard. Not everybody can be a manager. Not everybody can go from driving for Uber to building their future fleet of automated cars. And it is unfair for those in such high-skill positions to presume that for these workers it comes down to a matter of wanting it enough.
The middle-skilled formed the backbone of a modern world that is now leaving them behind. And so it is that perhaps now, more than ever, it is time to recognise their value and help them find a place in the fast-unfolding future.