July 05, 2020
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Adapt Or Perish! As Old Jobs Shrink, Are You Prepared For Jobs Of Future?

The so-called middle jobs that require average skills are diminishing and people will have to be smarter with machines. The trick is adjusting to the way society and economy are panning out

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Adapt Or Perish! As Old Jobs Shrink, Are You Prepared For Jobs Of Future?
Photograph by Getty Images
Adapt Or Perish! As Old Jobs Shrink, Are You Prepared For Jobs Of Future?

Are you a welder or a sold­ering machine operator in a power plant? Chances are, you’re not. A medical trans­criptionist? Data entry operator? Machi­nist? A teller at a bank? Perhaps, or some­one you know is. Or was…. What’s common to all of them? They all sound slightly, er, 20th century, don’t they? This is a small sample-set of a certain kind of job not as universally to be found as before. Many of them did indeed require skills, patience and unceasing hard work, but some­where, tragically but unrelentingly, they have been—or are in the process of being—outstripped by the pace of technological obsolescence. Yes, there are still thousands of welders and machinists, perhaps more than before: it’s the ratio that’s changing. It’s the shrinking proportion of such jobs, in relation to the total, that tells us of a sea-change. And yes, job security. Once you could spend decades in a job, even in the private sector. Now, when even government is downsizing, you could be looking at five years max, if you’re lucky.

Say you’re 19, just a year or so short of entering the job market. You’d be too young to remember a time when learning typing and shorthand was a sureshot way to land a job. Would you do that now? Not such a smart idea, right? So what do you do? First off, you must understand what’s happening.

We live in a disquieting era. We have the highest recorded unemployment in decades, but it’s not just about the sheer numbers. Built into that, and feeding those numbers, is a process. It’s also a qualitative thing: we have a fast-changing job landscape, and not enough of the new skills to grab what vacancies there are. This implies that we could well be without a job when the economy revs up. Yes, they want software developers, systems analysts, business operations specialists and such like. But that doesn’t necessarily or exclusively mean only high-tech skill sets will be called for. Certain sectors will inevitably expand along with a growing population, and old-school human skills will never go out of fashion. Think of the medical sector, for example: we’ll need more nurses, child/geriatric care-givers, physio­therapists. Customer service represen­tatives are here for good too, but they’ll have to become software-oriented. Good-old engineers are in that flux too. The virtuous cycle will be complete when technology comes to the aid of maids and cleaners. The trick is in attuning to the way society and economy are panning out. And in expanding your repertoire of skills that way. What used to be a 30-year assured work cycle or career 50 years ago, shrunk to a 10-year one around a decade back, and now one needs a thorough upgradation every five years to stay relevant.

Terra Infirma

Jobs in mining will also radically change in nature.

The trick is in attuning to the way society and economy are panning out. And in expanding your reportoire of skills that way.

Rajeev Kumar (name changed), a 30-year-old from Faridabad, is depre­ssed these days. Four years into working after a BTech in textiles from Punjab, the going was good: he was an assistant merchandiser in a leading garment export house. But the last six months were a nightmare. “I got an offer from another company, and I switched as they were offering an increment of Rs 5,000 per month.” Too good to be true, of course. Inside of two months, he was told business was down and he should look for a new job. “I joined another company, where too I was handed a pink slip within three months,” he says. Nothing wrong with how he worked. It’s just been the worst time for India’s garment and textile industry, with robust competition from other South Asian countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Indonesia leading to a drastic fall in orders…and massive job losses.

Where does that leave those like Rajeev? Well, he has to chart the inevitable path of skill upgradation. The family situation had kept him from doing a PG, but now he’s looking to do one in business management or further specialisation—perhaps a stint at a foreign university  for an MTech in non-woven and nano-materials textiles. That’s where the future lies.

In the first 12 years of this century, India went through a paradoxical period of jobless growth. Things worsened in the past seven years, with armies of sullen and traumatised job-seekers on a march to nowhere. Their ranks swelled as new columns of the freshly retrenched joined them. Right now, there are more and more people looking for jobs that number lesser and lesser. Most of us haven’t realised that the job market has changed, not just in India, but globally. The stories are legion. Zomato recently fired 540 people, 10 per cent of its staff. You may have heard the numbers. But did you know why? They were all customer support people, and a chatbot-based app came along that could handle customer queries. The firm wanted chatbot managers now. Technology simply erased the old jobs, and created a demand for new ones. Roshini Malik, 27, lost her job after three years as a data-entry operator in an accountancy firm. Reason: her skills were outdated. “I’d promised myself I would upgrade my skills. I failed because I thought on-job training would be enough.” Most of us think that, but it was true only of that largely static world of the past. With the planet spinning faster and faster on its axis, you need way more skills, and must regularly add to them, just to stay where you are. Does that leave you in fear and despair? It need not. There are places, both online and physical, where you can study how to enter the future (see graphic).

The digital waves will wash away old sand sculptures, but create new shapes too. Take retail, for instance. With e-commerce swamping the space, cuts in employment are going to be inevitable. But there will be newer roles—they will need professionals literate in digital technology and data sciences: retail data analytics, supply chain analytics, digital marketing, customer experience, fraud analytics professional. You get the drift.

Brick & Mortar

A packaging and distribution unit of Flipkart.

Photograph by Nilotpal Baruah

Meanwhile, old jobs shrink. The whole world is feeling the pain, and that’s expressing itself as economic nationalism (think America First, Brexit). So India will ache on account of that too. The first trend, according to an EY report, will be a slowdown of offshore IT work in India, even as overseas jobs for Indians dry up too. A certain “sophistication in demand” will creep up. If the youth stick to traditional skills, and don’t acquire higher ones, they will be irreparably squeezed by the “hourglass effect”.

The Hourglass Cometh

As old jobs shrink, the world feels the pain. But the digital waves washing away old sand ­sculptures will create new shapes too.

In the near future, as has happened in the West, the job hierarchy will not look like a pyramid, but a skewed hourglass. The so-called middle jobs that require average skills will constrict; the bulk will slip down to a wide bottom, only a minority will upgrade to that slender top. Say there are hundred employees in the world. The top 20 per cent will earn 80 per cent of the annual incomes. The remaining 20 per cent booty will be split between the dozen or more clinging on to the middle and the vast underclass numbering 60-70. For example, in the world of digital apps, the top floor will be taken up by app designers, and a large number of those who will take instructions from the apps, like cabbies and delivery boys, will crowd the base. “People will be expected to be smarter, and be able to work with machines. The need for new skills and change around existing skills has accelerated,” explains Irwin Anand, MD, India, Udemy, a global online learning platform.

Experts say almost half of present jobs—47 per cent to be precise—have a 70 per cent likelihood of being displaced in a decade. The future will create radically new jobs. According to the EY study, by 2022, as much as 9 per cent of India’s job market will be constituted by work that doesn’t exist now, and another 34 per cent by jobs that call for radically changed skills. The trend will be sharper, covering 50-60 per cent of jobs, in sectors such as IT and auto. Almost up to a quarter of existing work will be under threat—naturally, the highest in IT (20-35%) and financial services (20-25%). A Udemy-Deloitte research found that the half-life of skills in traditional sectors is five years, and a much lower 12-18 months in engineering and technology.

Globally, 21 per cent of existing positions will become redundant, and 27 per cent will comprise entirely new work by 2022, according to the World Economic Forum. The nature of the workplace too will change because of new business models. The gig economy will create new, if highly mobile white-collar jobs. The ‘Uber model’ will take over sectors such as healthcare, maintenance and home services. There will be few jobs that don’t require any digital skills. A McKinsey study shows that, globally, the demand for digitally literate personnel will grow 55 per cent by 2030, and represent 17 per cent of total manhours, up from 11 per cent in 2016. In India, that spike may be much sharper because it’s at an earlier phase of technology adoption. Again, this doesn’t call for mere garden-variety IT literacy, but a highly adaptable, constantly evolving brain—even within technology sectors. No course will grant you such a brain. Think of the future employee as a self-learning machine.

The Pulse

Healthcare jobs can’t vanish, but they’ll demand new skills.

Photograph by Getty Images

The so-called middle jobs that require average skills will constrict; the bulk will slip down to a wide bottom.

“The five sectors with the greatest potential are transport and logistics, retail, food processing, construction, tourism, and hospitality. But employers will seek people with digital acumen, and ability to comprehend data,” says Ashok Varma, Leader (Social Sector), PwC India. A Brookings Institution study shows that, already between 2002 and 2016, the share of jobs with low digital skill requirements fell from 56 per cent to 30 per cent in the US, while the other side zoomed from 5 per cent to 23 per cent. Expect that to curve further.

A mere engineering degree, once a sureshot passport to attractive designations and lucrative salaries, won’t suffice. A LinkedIn global survey found engineering and technician roles have diminished in the infrastructure and energy sectors. In IT, system administrators began to give way to those who could do experience design and marketing. Adapt and augment, or perish. Indian students seem to have realised this to an extent, by the way. The official AISHE report says admission to professional courses was at a four-year low in 2018-19. In the past five years, enrolments in BTech and MTech fell by 50 per cent! However, the craze for MBA remains: admissions went up by almost 13 per cent during the same period.

Digital Anganwadi

Sectors hitherto considered low-tech ones have witnessed a transformation too. Digital skills are paramount now in state-sponsored infrastructure and welfare schemes. Anganwadi women workers and ASHAs now have to use mobile apps and digital tools in the Swachh Bharat Mission and POSHAN Abhiyaan: recording data. State officials have to handle that data to monitor these projects. E-governance is filtering down. At the same time, the need for human skills and empathetic engagement will increase too in a variety of social sectors, says McKinsey.


The simplest example of IT-based skill enhancement, the Uber/Ola.

Photograph by Jitender Gupta

Adapt or perish. Even in state-sponsored ­infrastructure and welfare schemes, ­digital skills have become paramount.

The services sector will emerge as the “largest generator of employment” in the country, says Kamlesh Vyas, partner, Deloitte India. And here, as elsewhere, “self-employment will account for over 50 per cent of (future) jobs,” he adds. Clearly, entrepre­neurship and start-ups will play a critical role. This, of course, redefines the traditional idea of a ‘job’ in challenging ways. And the challenge is not just to innovate, but to take these innovations to the market, says Sarit K. Das, director, IIT (Ropar). He sees the “business angle”—the ability to fructify ideas in a viable way and monetise them—as the missing link. Social, emotional and leadership skills are key if a young, imaginative person seeks out schemes like Start-Up India, MUDRA and others.

Higher cognitive skills—advanced literacy, quantitative and statistical, critical thinking, information processing, interpretation—is where the game will be. Jobs that require basic cognitive skills—data entry, data processing, cashiers, consumer service—are what’s declining. Maybe there will be a time differential between how it unfolds in the West and here, but if you’re smart, don’t focus only on competences that will take you to the base of the hourglass. Two reasons. First, it’s a crowded place with intense competition. That, in turn, will depress wages. The trick is to upgrade, upgrade, upgrade.


The world’s still run mostly on oil, so the related jobs on land and sea will be around for a while.

Photograph by Atul Loke

Companies need to look at reskilling not as additional cost points, but as the nucleus for future growth.

That’s why online training has become a new hub for the skill development wheel. Millions of young Indians are gravitating to short-term online courses, such as on the AUS-based platform, Coursera. Of its 43 million learners globally, India has emerged as the second-largest market, after the US. In 2018, it added over a million new learners, an average of 95,000 a month. Over 64 per cent of them are in it for computer/data sciences and business. “Most of them hail from Maharashtra, Karnataka, Delhi-NCR, Tamil Nadu and UP,” says Raghav Gupta, MD (India and APAC), Coursera. And, while nearly three quarters of them are in the 18-29 age bracket, those between 30-39 account for 20 per cent too. A new, vital break in that old, static paradigm where people are usually able to acquire only 20 per cent of the skills they need, as Sumit Kumar, founder of HR solution provider HeadsUp, points out.

It’s not just people who need to be creative, of course. An enabling atmosphere for job creation calls for sustainable double-digit GDP growth. EY speaks of a “decoupling effect” that has delinked growth from new incremental jobs. Couple that with a halving of “employment elasticity”—that is, earlier a 10 per cent GDP growth ensured a 4 per cent growth in new jobs; now it’s 2 per cent. Industry and government have to put their heads together. Companies must look at reskilling not as additional cost points, but as the nucleus for future growth. The government has to extend its present initiatives—the ITIs, poly­technics and other skill develop­ment institutes—in the light of the future transformation. It must not only impart skills for existing jobs, but to prime the youth for future jobs. No point spending huge efforts and money to teach a skill that will become redundant in a few years. And maybe, if enough people upgrade themselves creatively, that hourglass itself can be shattered.


Scared Of IT? What You Can Do

It is a myth that to become a data scientist you need a PhD. A professional ­certificate is suitable for anyone with some computer skills and a passion for self-learning. No prior computer science or programming knowledge is necessary.

  • Even those who have studied up to just Class XII can do the Google IT Support Gateway certificate. All it costs is Rs 20,000 to Rs 25,000. This five-course certificate, developed by Google, prepares a person for an ­entry-level role in IT support. A job in IT can mean in-person or remote help desk work in a small business or at a global company like Google. The course is recognised by several ­national and global IT firms. It equips you to dev­e­lop your skills further in this direction.
  • Another pretty useful course is What is Data Science? by IBM, which costs Rs 2,700 per month. This ­program comprises nine courses that provide you with the latest job-ready skills and techniques covering a wide array of data science topics, including open source tools and libraries, ­methodologies, Python, databases, SQL, data visualisation, data analysis and machine learning. You will be practising hands-on in the IBM Cloud using real data science tools and ­real-world data sets.

Besides, anyone can opt for short-term online courses on AUS-based platform, Coursera. Of the 43 million learners globally, over 64 per cent study computer and data sciences. India is Coursera’s second-largest market, after the US.

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