Robots, MBAs & The Future Of Work



Self-driving cars are coming to get you – if you live in Pittsburgh, at least. Uber and Volvo are rolling out the first fleet of self-driving cars in the Steel City at this very moment, far earlier than most observers expected to see robots cruising the streets of the United States. And while this first group of robotic cabbies will have two human attendants watching its every move, it marks an important and exciting milestone in the march towards an increasingly automated future. For consumers, robot drivers offer all sorts of advantages over the status quo: lower costs, fewer accidents, less awkward conversation.

However, the future doesn’t look quite so bright for those who make their living behind the wheel. That’s not only the case for would-be Uber drivers; there are more than a million and a half truck drivers in the United States who will be replaced by robots over the next decade. Those workers represent around 1% of the entire American workforce – and they’re just the beginning. Along with the millions of jobs that will be automated out of existence, tens or even hundreds of millions more will be heavily augmented by robot assistants (with a commensurate reduction in salary). These changes will fundamentally alter the landscape of employment, and anyone interested in earning a salary in 20 years’ time is well-advised to consider how these circumstances will affect their career.

Of course, it’s not only jobs like driving and manufacturing that will be affected by the rise of robots; the automation of tasks in every occupation will make even highly valued technical skills like computer programming and engineering less valuable. Research conducted by David Deming at Harvard (among others) and reported by FiveThirtyEight indicates that social skills are becoming a prerequisite for the best and highest-paying jobs in the United States, and that trend is likely to intensify over the coming decades. In other words, being a people person will never go out of style.

How, then, can a forward-looking student prepare for a future where working with people is so crucially important? Here’s one idea: get an MBA. Talk with any graduate business school alum about their career, and you’re likely to hear one common thread: MBA jobs are all about working with people. And while MBA programs come in many flavors, the general management curriculum and the increasingly collaborative focus of graduate business school make it a near-perfect primer for a career in leveraging interpersonal skills. Given that, the MBA might just be the most future-proof academic degree available.

What Makes the MBA Degree Different

Graduate degrees tend to focus on the further development of highly specialized skill-sets or to facilitate entry into highly specific practice areas. Medicine and law are the most obvious examples of this phenomenon, but it extends to plenty of other areas, including engineering, humanities, and social sciences. Even within graduate business school, focus areas like accounting and finance prepare students for a relatively rigid career path.

By comparison, the MBA is a uniquely wide-ranging and versatile degree. In addition to the hard business skills taught in finance and marketing classes, there are elements of social sciences taught in organizational behavior classes, and humanities are covered in business ethics and communications classes. And in all of these classes, the students themselves will bring to bear perspectives from academic and professional backgrounds that is far more diverse than most if not all other graduate degree programs.

The advantages extend beyond the classroom, as well. The broad applicability of the management skillset means that MBAs can find jobs in just about any industry they want. That includes industries – like transportation and manufacturing – that will be largely or entirely automated over the next half-century. Even robots need a manager.

Optimizing your MBA Experience for a Future Ruled by Robots

Soft skills get a bad rap. Often overshadowed by the harder quantitative skills taught in classes like finance or decision analysis, lessons from organizational behavior, business ethics, and communications classes are, in fact, more often cited by returning alumni as valuable or memorable in the years or decades after graduation.  As mentioned above, the common theme of MBA careers for decades has been working with people. That remains the case today, and it will continue to be the case for decades to come.

Given that soft skills will be the defining competitive advantage in the hiring market for the foreseeable future, students entering MBA programs should place a particular emphasis on those classes with a distinctly human element. Humans may still be better at putting together discounted cash flow spreadsheets for the time being, but that skill set will no longer be offered the same advantages in 10, 15, or 25 years. Robots, however, are not likely to become good at complex interpersonal tasks like conflict resolution or persuasion, and those are the areas where MBAs have an opportunity to contribute in unique and meaningful ways for as long as businesses and other organizations exist. Soft skill classes can often seem trivial or unimportant in comparison to the academic rigor of quantitative disciplines, but absorbing and implementing lessons from those courses will be the primary way in which the MBAs of tomorrow demonstrate true value to their employers and ensure the continued viability of their careers.

Managing for an Uncertain World

While the impending wave of labor automation is not likely to directly affect the job prospects of MBAs for the foreseeable future, it will dramatically affect the work and lives of those employees under their management. Organizational leaders from every industry will soon be grappling with difficult decisions about the trade-offs between increasing automation and providing gainful employment to those workers whose skills are no longer as valuable. While MBA orthodoxy dictates that managers should always err on the side of operational efficiency, there will come in a time in the not-so-distant future when replacing workers with robots en masse will have profound effects on both a micro business level as well as a macro societal level. When the average consumer’s job is co-opted by a machine, how will those consumers earn a wage that will allow them to purchase the products those machines create?

It’s easy to view this sort of scenario as mere science-fiction in a world where Siri can hardly understand simple questions and humans are still far better than machines at even simple tasks. But the exponential improvement of technology (see Moore’s Law for a good example) will mean that these thorny problems rear their heads sooner rather than later. The holistic approach to business that is taught in most MBA programs can offer valuable perspective on these issues, but business schools and MBAs both will need to be ready to adapt traditional rules of business to a brave new world of rapid technological change. How well they handle this transition might just determine whether the rise of robots will represent a boon or a burden for society in the 21st century and beyond.

Zach Mayo is the chief operating officer of RelishCareers, the marketplace for MBA hiring. Available to students and alumni from network schools, RelishCareers gives candidates access to employer branding and MBA-specific career exploration resources (including exclusive webinars) before the hectic pace of first-year MBA life begins in the fall. Admitted and newly minted MBAs can sign up now to explore company pages, build an initial target list, and engage with employers before on-campus recruiting begins and with off-campus companies.