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How automation is changing the world (21st century skills)

Think what’s happened to work in the past few decades. In manufacturing, many jobs that were traditionally performed by people are now automated, with machines replacing large numbers of factory workers. And it’s not just manufacturing: Routine business tasks are increasingly entrusted to computers. Instead of calling a travel agent when you want to take a trip, you’re likely to go online for your plane tickets, hotel reservations, and rental car. And instead of taking a shoebox full of financial records to a tax accountant each year, you can choose from a range of do-it-yourself computerized tax-preparation software programs.

Because they’re good at carrying out routine procedures, computers are especially good at certain kinds of tasks:

  • Those that require information processing
  • Those that require following a prescribed set of rules
  • Those that involve recognizing simple patterns

As a result, any job that depends to a large extent on following directions is open to automation. Most vulnerable are jobs in manufacturing and administrative support, but automation is also taking over some so-called white collar jobs, such as accounting. After all, it’s cheaper to pay for a computer that can handle a certain job—like booking seats on a plane—than to pay a person to do it. As the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce recently concluded, “If work is routine, no matter how complex it is, chances are it can be automated.”

But experience shows that automation doesn’t lead to widespread unemployment. For one thing, existing jobs evolve or new ones are created in response to the demand for smarter, more agile technology. And for another, some things really can’t be done well by computers. Economists who study occupations have identified increased demands for certain sets of skills:

  • “Expert thinking,” or the ability to solve unexpected problems
  • Complex communication in interactions with other people, such as collaboration, persuasion, or sales
  • Strong reading and math skills, which are essential foundations for expert thinking and complex communication


These are the skills workers will need as the 21st century progresses – the skills today’s schools should stress. It’s hard to predict where automation will take tomorrow’s workforce, but when it comes to education, two lessons are clear:

  • Both white-collar and blue-collar jobs are being “up-skilled,” or shifting away from routine manual and cognitive tasks and toward more analytical and interactive activities.
  • School curriculum that emphasizes following directions to find a single correct answer prepares students for jobs that, often, computers can do faster and better. Students are more likely to succeed when they can develop, propose, and advocate solutions to complex problems that do not have a single, simple "correct" answer.

Interested in learning more? Read about what skills will be needed—and what kind of curriculum will prepare students effectively—in the larger report on 21st century skills.

This summary was based on a work by Craig D. Jerald. Craig D. Jerald is president of Break the Curve Consulting, specializing in education policy, communications, research, and practice. Previously, Craig was a Principal Partner at the Education Trust, where he worked on issues related to teacher quality, accountability, federal education policy, and the practices of high-performing schools and districts. Craig was also a Senior Editor at Education Week, where he founded and managed the organization’s research division and helped create Ed Week’s special annual reports series, Quality Counts and Technology Counts.

This summary was written by Sally Banks Zachariya. Zakariya, a free-lance writer based in Arlington, Virginia, is former editor-in-chief of American School Board Journal and director of publications for the National School Boards Association.

Posted: September 21, 2009

©2009 Center for Public Education

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Home > Policies > Putting it all together > How automation is changing the world (21st century skills)