Bernardo M. Villegas
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Workplace Skills in Digital Age (Part 1)

          One of the key trends associated with the digital age is the disappearance of some categories of work owing to automation and artificial intelligence.  How seriously should we take this threat, especially as regards giving advice to the youth about what studies to undertake in preparation for their future jobs?  Let us take for example the IT-BPO sector that presently employs some 1.1 million Filipinos and earns some $25 billion annually, accounting for some 8 percent of Philippine GDP.  There is a lot of talk about how call centers will be soon automated and that robots will take the place of the call center agents.  In an article written by Elijah Joseph Tubayan (Business World, April 13-14, 2018), there was a summary of a flagship report of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) entitled “How Technology Affects Jobs.” The ADB allayed fears of job losses resulting from the so-called “fourth industrial revolution” but pointed out that economies need to offer specialized training in order to meet the demand for higher-skilled work.   New technologies only automate routine tasks that form part of certain jobs, such as soldering components onto a circuit board, piling boxes in warehouses, counting cash in banks or correcting multiple choice exams. 

         It is highly probable that improved productivity and lower prices often stimulate higher demand which, in turn, may expand the number of jobs in factories that automate part of their production processes.  In many countries where labor is still relatively plentiful, as in the Philippines where we still have a young and growing population, many firms may not even  opt to fully automate processes with technology as the costs may not yield enough profits in return.  At least in the short run in the BPO industry, it might require very large capital expenditures to automate so that even voice-oriented BPO firms may continue to depend on Filipino workers, at least in the next five to ten years.

         The ADB report, however, advises workers to take advantage of the growing demand for higher-skilled jobs since those in clerical or process-driven tasks may experience stagnant wage growth.  At present, some 47% of BPO workers in the Philippines work at process-driven tasks requiring little abstract thinking.  The ADB projects the share of low-skilled jobs in BPOs to decline to 27% by 2022 from 47% in 2016, while medium-skilled jobs—those that involve complicated tasks that require experience and abstract thinking—will expand to 46% from 38%, and those requiring high skills growing to 27% from 15%.  A special reference is made to those workers in Health Management Information, one of the fastest growing sectors in recent years.  “Workers employed as medical transcriptionists may lose their jobs to increasingly sophisticated software able to recognize voice, text, and image signals.  Transitioning these workers into non-routine cognitive jobs in the BPO industry will require retraining and skills development.”

         Especially with the introduction of the K to 12 Curriculum, the Philippine educational sector is given enough time to help in addressing this transition from low-skilled jobs to higher-skilled ones.  The specialized skills needed to work with the new technologies should be incorporated into the curricula of universities and institutions specializing in technical and vocational education and training.  The challenge is two-pronged: “They will have to cater not only to the rising number of graduates from secondary education, but also to adults seeking to upgrade their skills or retrain.”

         Just exactly what is the nature of those so-called higher skills.  Do they have to do with more specialized professional training such as those offered in business, engineering and law schools?  A recent book by Northeastern University president Joseph Aoun entitled “Robot-Proof:  Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence” provides some valuable insights.  In a book review by Alan Livsey in the Financial Times (January 20, 2018), the question was asked whether or not particularly vulnerable to the automation of work are those with a liberal arts training. The answer may be found in what can be called “humanics,” a hybrid between the humanities and the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).  Mr. Aoun reminds us that creative problem-solving, people management and social intelligence remain beyond the purview of machines.  No matter what, these soft skills will be needed.  A new discipline called “humanics” may have to be developed to nurture those soft skills.  Such an educational program will have to be a hybrid between the humanities (the traditional liberal arts) and the STEM discipline.  The curriculum of this “humanics” program will include data literacy, to manage the flow of big data; technological literacy, to understand how robots actually work; and human literacy, encompassing humanities, communication and design.  It is the humanities portion that will keep the robots at bay.  A mind that is trained to see patterns in numbers, words or shapes lends itself well to systems design—which is something that machines cannot do well.

         Mr. Aoun, who is a professor of linguistics, draws on existing educational theories to demonstrate just where the weaknesses lie in machine learning.  For example, there is the difference between “near” and “far” learning.  Artificial intelligence can help to refine a process by iteratively correcting errors and omissions (near learning).  One cannot expect a robot, however, to apply what it has learned from voice recognition to interpreting a performance of King Lear.  Robot-Proof has neatly uncovered the blind spots of robots and offers a useful new paradigm for teaching liberal arts students how to cope with the threat from the new world of machine learning.  In helping their children to choose the right universities, parents should give preference to those institutions of higher learning that assign a high priority to giving a strong foundation in the liberal arts (philosophy, literature, history, languages and the social sciences) before getting the undergraduates to specialize in some professional field or another.  That is what we do at the University of Asia and the Pacific, having patterned our university curricula after that of the famous Harvard University where those of us who founded this Philippine institution of higher learning undertook our graduate studies.  (To be continued).