The future of jobs: Kathleen Mullaney on automation, the growth mindset and learning as the new currency

The theme for this year’s RiseUp Summit is the Human Experience. (Photo Courtesy of RiseUp Summit)

“About 50 percent of jobs existing today can be automated,” says Kathleen Mullaney, vice president of careers and people operations at Udacity.

Having worked as a visual data specialist at Google Maps after graduation, Mullaney joined Udacity in 2012, a for-profit educational organization offering a large amount of online courses. On the first day of RiseUp Summit 2017, Mullaney talked about the future of jobs and how to prepare for a world that is more AI-centric and technology-oriented.

Human experience can be improved through technology and education, she says, challenging the belief that the automation of certain jobs will lead to the elimination of the job opportunities.

“Automation creates new jobs because who will build, develop and operate the machines?” she asks.

She stresses the importance of lifelong learning and having a growth mindset that pushes people to tap into potential they never thought they had.

Business Forward sat down with Mullaney after her talk and delved deeper into how learning is becoming the new currency, where automation ends and whether jobs as we know them today are really in danger.

You were talking about the importance of lifelong learning and how learning has become the new currency. What does that mean?
Since technology is developing really quickly, the selection criteria for jobs are not going to be all of the knowledge you have at present, but it’s going to be your ability to learn.

So if you get a job as a web developer, for example, and you were programming in Backbone, which is going out-of-style today, you are going to learn new frameworks and that is going to be constant. If you can only program in one framework, you are actually limiting your opportunities for future jobs. This is going to be happening in the micro- and macro-scale.

Your ability to learn and adapt to the [shifts in technology] will mean that you will continue to work as a developer and your job description is always going to change. The startup community in Silicon Valley is looking for people who have probably not done the job they are [being hired] to do. They assess people according to their readiness and ability to learn.

Does the growth mindset only apply to developers?
No, it’s not just for development or people in the STEM fields. You can have a fixed mindset, which is the converse of a growth mindset, which I had my entire life about something as simple as my own athletic abilities.

I’m a distance-runner, so I always thought I was never fast. I learned about growth mindset when we started applying these principles in our courses and I realized that I had a fixed mindset about this really silly thing regarding exercise. I started trying and realized that I can actually run faster once that flipped in my head.

I have that mindset about everything in my life and, when I feel defeated about something, I realize that I have probably fallen into that fixed mindset trap and that I should probably take a second and reflect and find another way through this.

You also talked about automation and how automation does not necessary kill jobs, but can create jobs, for example, in software and machine development. But still, certain jobs will not exist anymore. Which jobs are those?
One of the common examples used to talk about how the workforce evolves with automation is bank tellers and ATM machines. Now, you don’t have to go to the bank and talk to someone to get your money, and that is good for everybody. It’s faster, it’s more convenient, it’s less traffic, It’s been great for business overall. But what happened to all the bank tellers? Well, they upscaled. They are now financial advisors for instance. And that is great, because they don’t have to do this very tedious task that a machine could do.

But where does the automation end?
One of the stats that I mentioned in my talk was that 50 percent of jobs today can be automated and that is a really hard thing to read. Technology is going to continue to advance. The same report said that roughly 5 percent of jobs cannot be automated today, so that is a pretty small number. These these jobs are the more creative ones that require a creative or judgement perspective.

As a people manager, you cannot outsource to a machine. The theme for RiseUp is Human Experience, and I think things are going to be easier for us because we are going to do more things that are human to human where we are interfacing with each other. We are not spending our time running analyses on Excel. A lot of things machines can do better, and I’d rather machines do that.

What about jobs like cashiers and driverless cars – where do those people go?
Those are the tougher ones. Those are people who are trained for a very specific task. Those two fields in the US make up 5 million jobs, which is over 2 percent of the total workforce – a big number. They may need to retrain. They will need to find other alternatives. But drivers are needed for driverless cars, for setting up the machines for instance. So this is just a gradual evolution of the job. This process is more continuous and gradual than people think.

When you think about all of those jobs that will be lost, you think it is like this cliff and all of a sudden, nobody has jobs. This is not how this is going to work. It will happen gradually so people have time to adapt.

As the economy evolves to adjust to this, there are going to be gaps of unemployment, and one of the things I agree with most is that we should strive to close those gaps as soon as possible. Especially in the MENA region and Egypt, youth need to stay ahead of this and start doing this kind of training and start building jobs for themselves.

How do you integrate something like this in the educational system?
In the US, I have seen a lot of practice going into this growth mindset idea. Some people believe that your intelligence is fixed, that you’re born with it and that if you’re not good at something, you will never be good at it. But this has not been proven by any research at all.

The more you try something, the better you will get. Just getting people to believe that they can do better with practice, it does a lot.

Like Khan Academy, one of the things they do, they promote the growth mindset. If you remind people that they can make mistakes and get better when they do, they actually do better and try more.

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