Staying ahead of the robot apocalypse

March 28, 2018

Robots are taking over … literally. Technological advances creating “disruptive innovations” across a host of industries are generating seismic shifts in the workforce and how workers can remain qualified and competitive in the job market.  

According to the Associated Press, construction is just the latest industry looking to address persistent labor shortages with technologically driven solutions. Jobs as Bulldozer operators and bricklayers used to be held by those with high school diplomas or less. Now, driverless guidance systems and high-tech robots are poised to replace people in ways we could never have imagined. 

In fact, at the 2017 Pete V. Domenici Public Policy Conference, former US Undersecretary of Labor Seth Harris predicted that 47 percent of today’s jobs could be replaced by technology. 

Another factor impacting human workers is a dramatic swing in minimum education requirements of jobs because of the increased integration of technology. The National Skills Coalition recently highlighted that 35 years ago, only 28 percent of jobs required some type of college-level education or training. Today, 80 percent do. Half of those are middle-skills jobs that require career-specific certifications or associate degrees.

All of this illustrates the need to have far more sophisticated conversations about “college and career readiness” to ensure that our people have what they need to be successful in the jobs that are here now, as well as those of the future.

College is key, but “college” doesn’t only mean “university.” According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 69 percent of high school seniors go straight into college after graduation, which is good. However, less than a third of them are choosing the two-year colleges whose programs align education to faster employment in high-demand middle skill jobs.  

So as workers — or as parents of future workers — how do we best use education to stay ahead of the robot apocalypse? 

We have to understand that education is not a destination. It’s part of the journey toward a career. That journey can have multiple finish lines, each one carrying with it increased earning power and the skills to use the technology we have, or to create our own disruptive innovations that change the future of work.  

Along the way, we need to develop the critical thinking, complex problem solving, written and oral communication, and applied knowledge skills that 75 percent of New Mexico’s employers want, and robots simply cannot provide. 

In Doña Ana County, we are fortunate to have the full spectrum of educational institutions right in our backyard. In our high schools, we have career-focused programs that build the path between high school, college and career. Programs in aerospace, automation and manufacturing, health, computer information, electronics and more help students gain industry skills while crossing two finish lines at once — high school and career certifications, which increases earning power by about $5,000 a year on average.  

Early college high school students start college courses earlier and earn associates degrees along with their high school diplomas, increasing their earning power by about $12,000 on average. 

Youth and those already working who want to increase their skills and income can take advantage of certificate programs at Doña Ana Community College, which can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few semesters to complete. And thanks to the relationship between DACC and New Mexico State University, students can earn an associate degree on their way to completing bachelor degrees or higher.  

This is important because the majority of college students are also working full- or part-time jobs. In fact, lack of funds and the need to work are two of the top reasons students don’t graduate. Having a credential, certificate or two-year degree puts them in a position to earn more with the time they have and pave the way to both completion and careers. 

The New Mexico Center for Community Analysis recently completed a study for the nonprofit group Ngage that showed Doña Ana County leads the state and nation in taking advantage of our rich educational assets. More than half (51 percent) of our county’s 18- to 24-year olds are enrolled in college, compared to the national average of 43 percent and state average of 37 percent.  

We desperately need them and others to cross their finish lines to collectively have the workforce our community needs to not just stay ahead of the robots but to drive economic development and regional prosperity.  

We have everything we need here to maximize the potential of our community’s greatest assets — our people. Robots can never change that.

Tracey Bryan is the president/CEO of The Bridge of Southern New Mexico. She may be reached at