The Future of Work

By Tara Kirkpatrick –

Tech Prowess, Adaptability Key for New Workforce

The speaker at the podium was embarrassed to realize he didn’t have his notes. Then, a charming robot on wheels brought them to him, along with a Diet Coke and a friendly greeting.

The funny, staged exchange at a recent community event between University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins and a food delivery robot demonstrated how man and machine might work together.

“The Future of Work: How to Thrive in an Automated Workplace,” held at UArizona in January, was organized by the Southern Arizona Leadership Council, UArizona Eller College of Management, Sun Corridor Inc., Pima Association of Governments and Community Foundation of Southern Arizona. Media sponsors included the Arizona Daily Star and Arizona Public Media. 

“For the last 100 years, automation has changed the way this country works,” said Ron Shoopman, treasurer of the Arizona Board of Regents and former SALC president. “It has brought challenges, but also opportunities. We find ourselves in another period of significant change. How do we respond?”

The next workforce will witness the Fourth Industrial Revolution – the focus of a book by World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab – in which biological, physical and digital worlds will fuse, impacting all disciplines, economies and industries. It will fundamentally change what it means to be human. To stay relevant, people must adapt and learn to thrive in an increasingly automated workforce that will see some jobs replaced and others created.

About four in 10 jobs, or about 154,000 jobs, in Pima County are at risk of going away, said George Hammond, director of the Eller Economic and Business Research Center. The lowest-skilled jobs, along with those with repetitive tasks, will be the first to face automation. Food preparation and service; farming, forestry and fishing; building maintenance; production; and sales are among the most susceptible industries.

“Machines won’t take all of our jobs,” Hammond said, “but job disruptions are coming.” Industries that will face less risk for automation include education, community and social services, management, architecture, engineering and healthcare because they require sophisticated creativity and vital human interaction. 

Still, “more and more, we will work with smart machines,” he told the audience. 

For example, the food delivery robot that helped Robbins is one of 38 that currently roam Northern Arizona University, bringing food from campus restaurants to students. The popular robots, summoned by an app, can cross streets, climb curbs, travel at night and operate in rain and snow. 

UArizona students are using an app to access free primary healthcare through their cell phones. The app, created by Seattle startup 98point6, lets students consult with doctors on health issues any time of day, Robbins said.

In the event’s roundtable discussion, companies revealed more of what’s coming.

TuSimple, a San Diego transportation company with offices in Tucson, aims to put driverless semitrucks on the roads by 2021. That will help fill a shortage of 50,000 long-haul drivers – a deficit expected to hit 175,000, said Robert Brown, TuSimple’s director of public affairs and government relations. The company tests the trucks on routes between Tucson and Phoenix.

“We are pegged as a disruptor, but we are trying to be a positive disruptor,” Brown told the audience. “Young people are not going into trucking. We are focused on solving that long-haul stretch.” 

Food giant McDonald’s has an app that could soon identify users’ meal preferences as soon as they breach the “geofence” around a restaurant building, said Paul Dias, president, CEO and COO of Dias Management, which oversees 15 McDonald’s locations in Southern Arizona. “Once you break the entrance barrier, we start gathering data on your ordering habits, with your permission. You will be welcomed by name and asked if you would like your usual.”

McDonald’s is also looking for employees who can help customers order food on kiosks and make them feel comfortable with the new technology, Dias said. “Adaptability is critical to their ability to perform the job. We are not looking for fewer employees, but the skills we are looking for today are different than a few years ago.”

Adaptability is just one skill that workers will need to stay relevant, said leaders from UArizona, Pima Community College and the Pima Joint Technical Education District. Advanced IT and basic digital knowledge, complex information processing, entrepreneurship and leadership will also be in high demand in tomorrow’s workforce.

UArizona’s Eller College of Management, which oversees top programs in management information systems and entrepreneurship, has a strategic plan “built around preparing students for the next industrial revolution,” said Paulo Goes, the college’s dean. Eller houses both an artificial intelligence lab and a tech garage for its students. Fridays at Eller, when there are no classes, focus on technology and machine learning workshops, Goes said.

Pima Community College, which boasts a nationally ranked aviation training program, has partnered with the Arizona Cyber Warfare Range at its East Campus to offer cutting-edge cybersecurity classes. The school is also leading a multicollege project to add 3,000 new apprenticeships in automated manufacturing. “We are improving student success and the student experience,” said David Dore, Pima’s president of campuses and executive vice chancellor. 

Pima JTED is launching tech programs that include drone transportation, robotics, optics and innovation, said JTED CEO Kathy Prather. “We need to disrupt how education has been delivered,” she said. “We are helping students develop what we see as the new currency.”

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