The Robots Are Coming: Soft Skills Required for a Successful Future

Why are soft skills important? Imagine the sun is out and there is still sand lining the floor of your family car. It is the height of summer, but carefree, fun-filled days will be ending soon for many students. The college application season is upon us. High school seniors will soon glue themselves to their computers, entering their personal information into the Common Application and writing their deeply personal and awe-inspiring essays. They hope and pray that all of the long hours and hard work put into their stellar GPAs and SAT scores will finally pay off and get them into their dream school. As they have been told, graduating with excellent grades from a top college, with a summer internship or two thrown in, will ensure their success in life. Or will it?

Advancements in technology have an interesting way of making tools (typewriter anyone?) and some hard and fast rules, well, obsolete. The emergence of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) should make parents and essay-writing students sit up and take notice. A 2013 study out of Oxford University by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne called “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs To Computerization?” should be on everyone’s reading list.

artificial intelligence meme

In a recent New York Times article, Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern University, indicated that the threat of robots and their impact on students’ job prospects, described in Frey and Osborne’s study, is what keeps him up at night. According to the article, Aoun directed his university to build a strategic plan that helps his students to be “robot-proof”. He calls this strategy humanics. “The idea is to give students the ability to solve the world’s most pressing problems in a way that robots cannot – with empathy”. (New York Times; “With Changing Students and Times, Colleges are Going Back to School”, Erica L. Green, April 5, 2018.)

What Is In The Future?

The Frey and Osborne study is a bit lengthy and involved. For those who want to understand the cause of Aoun’s insomnia but don’t wish to read all seventy-two pages, here are the highlights.


Over the next ten to twenty years (2023-2033), the study indicates that 47% of total US employment is at risk for computerization. To reach this conclusion, Frey and Osborne identified three categories of higher order tasks that they believe will be the least susceptible to replacement by technology. These categories include perception and manipulation tasks, creative intelligence tasks, and social intelligence tasks. The researchers then reviewed seven hundred and two occupations and determined to what extent each of those occupations relied upon the three categories of tasks. The jobs which contained low concentrations of complex perception and manipulation tasks, creative intelligence tasks, and social intelligence tasks, were more likely to be replaced by technology. As one would expect, the jobs which possessed greater concentrations of those skills were less susceptible to replacement by technology.

Students who hope to be recreational therapists; first line supervisors of mechanics, installers or repairers; emergency management directors; or mental health and substance abuse social workers can breathe a sigh of relief as those are the four least likely jobs to be replaced. Most education, therapy, social or complex medical professions were in the clear, but there are some surprises, so watch out! The most unlucky will be telemarketers, title examiners, hand sewers and mathematical technicians. Most clerks or low judgement-oriented professions, such as these, were the most likely to go.

The study contains a valuable appendix which lists the probability of replacement for each of the seven hundred and two occupations. The appendix is a must read for students as they try to answer that ominous question: What do I want to do when I grow up? Hint: Kids, don’t pick a job that is going the way of the robot. For parents, it is a great resource as they help their children understand the likely return on investment from their college experiences.

when I grow up

How Do You Prepare Your Child?

What does this study mean for high school students’ job prospects when they graduate from college? Great grades, excellent test scores and graduating from that dream school just might not be enough. Soft skills will be absolutely critical in the future to ward off the impending robot invasion. Strong social, interpersonal and team-related skills will be mandatory. Complex problem solving, specifically creative problem solving, will be extremely important. Being able to train or educate others will be rewarded with job security.

So, Mom or Dad, if your schedule is not yet completely full driving the kids to their tutors and SAT classes, you might want to consider adding in social skills classes, improvisational theater, and frequent visits to an “Escape the Room” activity center…… A mother’s work (dads, your’s too) is never done.