The skills that matter in the race between education and technology


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Technology rapidly changes the workplace and the skills demanded, making current workers less employable. One approach is to think about the kind of work that technology cannot replace.
(Photo: Curt Carnemark / World Bank)

Depending on to whom you listen, automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence (AI) will either solve all our problems or end the human race. Sometime in the near future, machine intelligence is predicted to surpass human intelligence, a point in time known as “the singularity.” Whether the rise of the machines is an existential threat to mankind or not, I believe that there is a more mundane issue: robots are currently being used to automate production.

Economist Richard Freeman argues that robots can be a substitute for workers, even highly skilled professionals. In addition, MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee suggest that, as computers get more powerful, companies have less need for some kinds of workers. A bigger impact can be felt in developing countries. If computerization makes high-income countries more self-sufficient—less offshoring and more “reshoring”—then developing countries may lose their wage advantage. Besides slowing employment growth, automation may also increase income inequality. Technological disruption is widely being debated in industrialized, high-income countries; however, policymakers in developing countries need to start worrying about the impact of automation as well.

There is a critical skills gap
Technology rapidly changes the workplace and the skills demanded, immediately making current workers less employable. Meanwhile, education systems are slow to change in terms of the creation of new skills. As the demand for new skills increases, the challenge will be to anticipate what those skills might be. For some the answer is science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skills as well as coding so that people can develop or work with the technology.
An alternative approach is to think about the kind of work that technology cannot replace. The Oxford Martin School stud­ies the vulnerability of jobs to automation point to those that draw most on creative and social skills, and complex perception and manipulation. Future workers need to make themselves “im­mune” to automation as much as possible. I believe that this does not mean that basic skills do not matter. In fact, we are seeing high returns to cognitive skills, especially non-routine skills.
These skills are:

  • Problem-solving skills to think critically and analyze
  • Learning skills to acquire new knowledge
  • Communication skills, including reading and writing
  • Personal skills for self-management, making sound judgments and managing risks
  • Social skills for collaboration, teamwork, management, leadership, and conflict resolution
Prepare students for the future world of work
Automation implies both deskilling and the need for new skills. For many developing countries, nurturing basic skills remains the most urgent priority. Early reading fluency is paramount, since in the digital economy lifelong learning becomes the key to success. In addition, skills needed for success are not likely to come from the usual sources. The most promising models of education and training that can deliver basic and new skills focus on the elements of effective education systems. Systems that do well prepare children early on, reform continuously, and use information for improvement and accountability.

The following components are necessary to achieving such reform:
  1. Assessment: Measurement is the cornerstone of education planning and reform aiming to improve quality. Countries that are unable to determine where their education system stands currently will find it difficult to make improvements or to reach their goals. One example of success in this area can be found in Jordan, where use of international tests for benchmark­ing and the use of feedback loops led to impressive gains.  
  2. Autonomy: Empowering schools will support quality improvements. This includes giving them ownership, resources, and voice.  
  3. Accountability: Accountability increases time on task and academic achievement. An ac­countability-based system usually entails a shift of decision-making authority from the gov­ernment to the community, which is represented by school governing boards and integrated by teachers, parents, and community members.  
  4. Attention to teachers: Studies across the world show that a good teacher—one that adds value to the learning process—can be effective in helping students to improve their learning out­comes. The top-performing school systems recruit their teachers from the top third of each graduate cohort.  
  5. Attention to early childhood development (ECD): Such programs may be the most cost-effective investment. Empirical evi­dence demonstrates that quality ECD interventions increase educational success and adult productivity, and decrease public expenditures later on, as in the case of Jamaica.  
  6. Attention to culture: Culture is important and often neglected. The use of the mother tongue as the language of instruction is one cultural area frequently disputed in many countries. In many countries, a significant number of students do not speak the national language in the home, which has practical implications for education. Schools using mother tongues as the language of instruction have higher attendance and promotion rates, and lower repetition and dropout rates.
To improve learning outcomes and prepare students for the world of work, countries must develop a system to determine current learning levels and future learning aims. Policymakers need to consider each aspect of the education system in defining an appropriate reform that will provide an inclusive and holistic approach to improving education outcomes. If this happened, then it wouldn’t matter much whether or not the robots are coming.
Find out more about World Bank Group education on our website and on Twitter

A paper under the same title as this blog post was prepared for the 2016 Brookings Blum Roundtable.

All our resources on skills and jobs are available here.


March 03, 2017

The alternative approach can also look into psycho motor domain.
Skills such as swimming, riding bicycle and driving. These are sometimes called permanent learning which does not decay through misuse. But difficult to learn by technology alone, but with the aid of technology.

Eric in Ontario
March 27, 2017

"driving" I get cycling but driving? Soon driving will be a redundant skill. Plus, it can be trained in simulators quite nicely.
It's these very skills that are most at risk of automation. Driving is a useful skill, but my grandchildren will likely never have to worry about driving a vehicle in the traditional sense.

Md. Nurunnabi
March 07, 2017

Thanks Harry for the fabulous writing. Indeed, the six components are the fundamental stairs that take quality education its reach. Each are interrelated. Attention to culture is really important to bring the global culture.We observe the root causes here in Bangladesh as well and most probably Adrian Holiday realized these and quoted "The inner circle countries have exported their classroom culture in the guise of ELT methodology to outer and expanding circle countries as 'native speakerism', and it 'cuts into and divides World TESOL by creating a negatively reduced image of non-native speaker students and educators' (Holliday. A. 2005: 16)."
Great blog!
Best wishes!

David H Deans
March 11, 2017

Automation is likely to continue to augment human abilities, not merely replace them. Granted, some jobs will become obsolete and therefore disappear, while others will become more rewarding for the person in that role.

March 20, 2017

It is crucial that we not only focus on giving Autonomy to teachers and administrators, but also to students so they can choose the path they wish to explore in life.
Thank you for posting a great article.

March 24, 2017

During 20th century both are a days many technologies are used in educations.many Apps also there.Besides slowing employment growth, automation may also increase income inequality. Technological disruption is widely being debated in industrialized, high-income countries.

Sean Thomas Moroney
March 27, 2017

Thank you for the well stated points about the ongoing disconnect of old century thinking with the realities of life in this (still) new century. It is great food for thought and hopefully those in educational policy making seats will read, listen, and hear. However, unless we all slow down enough to look around, reflect, and focus on actually teaching our students not just subjects, the myriad challenges we face in shifting instructional paradigms will just continue racing forward on auto-pilot mode not unlike the very robots this article mentions. Perhaps then, in order for us all to genuinely receive and respond to this message we need to rethink the notion of " the race between" and pace ourselves in a manner befitting the reflective and adaptive abilty which is a hallmark and mandate of our species, as opposed to trying to compete with machines, and keep-up with the current post-post modern thinking developing them.