We are going through what many economists think is the big issue of the 21st century, Dr. Mike Walden, North Carolina State University economist. That is, “How technology is rapidly changing how we work and who works.”

This disruption will change the kind of work available for people down the road, he said. “What this implies is that more focus has to be devoted not only to skilling new individuals, but to the need for the educational system to reskill people as the technology disruption of the work force continues.”

Walden made his points in a speech to the NC Chamber of Commerce Conference on Education.

He described the three groups in the workforce as:

  • Problem solving occupations: people have to solve problems every day. The percentage of total problem solving jobs is up nationally and total 30 percent in NC.
  • Routine jobs: Those are jobs in which someone does the same thing over and over, such as many factory workers. These jobs are ripe for automation. A Swedish inventor has even come up with a machine that will lay bricks. “Those jobs are winding down,” Walden says. “Anything that can be done routinely will likely be taken over by machines.”
  • Not routine: those include a lot of service jobs, such as janitorial, where the level of skill needed to solve problems is not high.

But, Walden adds, “As technology becomes better at solving problems, some of those jobs may also go to automation. Paralegals, for instance, are already being replaced by software.

All of this means that “The middle class decline emerges as a major issue.”

Walden identified the following jobs game changers:

  • Algorithms
  • Virtualization
  • Nanotech
  • 3D manufacturing
  • The Internet of Everything

Virtualization has many implications. He noted that a hotel in Japan already has robot greeters. But another effect that isn’t talked about so much is what full scale virtualization that provides a complete sensory experience without being physically present somewhere might mean.

“There are a tremendous amount of implications if it’s perfected,” he said. “Right now cities are on a roll, small towns not. People like to be around people, and companies like to be where their competitors are. But what will happen if you can participate without actually being there?”

All this disruption has happened before, Walden explains. “The tractor and other machinery changed farming. Tractors are more efficient, don’t need breaks, and don’t take vacations. Millions left the farm for factory work. One hundred years ago, a third of the workforce farmed. Today in NC, only one percent farm, but they’re much more efficient and productive.”

Then, machines began taking over factory work. “Automation came to the factory, which is still going on, and workers moved to service jobs.” Those pay far less with fewer benefits than the factory jobs they left.

More coverage: NC Chamber conference on education, workforce

  • Wake Tech president: Avoid ‘analysis paralysis’
  • UNC president: Higher ed needs to change
  • Execs talk how to win the job wars
  • NC must change education system to boost jobs
  • Walden: What won’t technology impact?