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Worry less about the tech and more about people

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We immigrant kids have one advantage. Well, more like a callous. Our experiences have prepared us for the age of disruption. 

I grew up in a Korean immigrant stereotype: a small grocery store in the heart of Montreal’s Bohemian district. And there were several commandments our family internalized: 12-hour workdays are normal; never underestimate life’s ability to make things much worse; and if you’re not behind the cash register or hauling stock, you better be reading a textbook. 

It’s an act of love that’s an acquired taste. Despite the continued feelings of anxiety, this mentality also set me up to deal with the future.

People working today can expect their jobs to be taken over by machines. But there’ll be new jobs for them to tackle if they can find the time to reskill.  

The future requires more skills training

If there’s one takeaway as we begin to understand the future of work, it is that obsolescence is happening at an accelerated scale in our current job professions. One study estimates that nearly 60 percent of all jobs could be automated. The current forecast for 2019 is that 10 percent of all jobs in the U.S. will be lost to automation. 

Though many are optimistic, with Gartner predicting that by 2020, AI will create more jobs than it will destroy, it still means that people will need to adapt to changing roles, and have some fundamental understanding of how AI algorithms work.  The way things look now, we’re not setting ourselves up for success. 

In Canada, according to the Public Policy Forum, less than one-third of working citizens receive any kind of training program. In the U.S., 0.03 percent of their GDP is spent on formal work training, compared to Denmark, who comes out on top spending 0.53 percent. So people working today can expect their jobs to be taken over by machines. But there’ll be new jobs for them to tackle if they can find the time to reskill.  

Businessmen working on phone and reading newspaper

There’s a universal truth about digital disruption: It’s never about the tech 

It’s no wonder that “culture” has been cited as the number one obstacle to a company’s successful digital transformation. A McKinsey survey of senior executives had cited culture and behavioral change as the top barrier to digital effectiveness. Any such strategy is asking the people within an organization to risk their short term livelihoods. It’s like weight loss. Of course, I understand cutting carbs and sugar is good for me but it’s another thing to get me to stop snacking. 

The costs can also be significant for businesses. Upskilling will require pay increases, training costs, and significant changes to organizational charts to create flatter firms. Amazon has announced that it intends to invest $700M to retrain just a third of its workforce.

I remember a time when lawyers looked down on using computers to conduct legal research rather than perusing through bound volumes in the law library. In West Africa, it was in the clinics in impoverished suburbs where I had the most difficult discussions on the need for change. 

There’s a lot of advice on successful change management but I think there are few novel lessons we can draw from the immigrant experience: 

  1. To draw people in, you need a story grounded in hope: An immigrant’s journey is one of hope. Why else relocate to another country where you don’t speak the language or have any friends? You can only expect people to push themselves if they have something to look forward to. But now is not the time to sugarcoat any gaps in skill-sets.
  2. Resilience is a foundational skill – focus on this first: Consultants call this “developing a growth mindset”. It’s also dealing with inevitable setbacks. Resilience allows people to overcome setbacks quickly or to grind through difficult periods. Our family’s resilience allowed us to survive times when we only had one customer per day for weeks. And people should expect plenty of career setbacks of their own.

    Promotions will go to individuals with the requisite tech skills; whole teams will be made redundant as automation will create low cost outsourcing options for companies; and the pace of change will increase the rate of obsolescence of any skills you’ve learned. 
  3. Give people time to learn: If any community is obsessed with education, it will certainly be the immigrants. Rightfully so if you want your children to develop the skills and social networks to succeed. Respect people’s limited free time and give them the paid time to learn and consider investing in developing the skills that will be necessary to succeed.

Of course, there’s a downside to the immigrant’s mindset. A constant state of anxiety is far from ideal and likely lowers performance over time. Many immigrants continue to struggle despite their best efforts and will continue to as AI-empowered machines become increasingly endemic to the ways we work. 

But drawing lessons from a group of people that have found a way to not only survive but thrive in the face of major personal disruption will allow all of us to push ourselves toward our goals. Immigrants have to navigate a new way of life, while we just have to figure out the tech. 


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