A headline a few weeks back caught my attention. At first, I thought I had misread it, because nearly everything I’ve read on the topic says the exact opposite. But I was right the first time: The headline read: “Jack Ma: We need to stop training our kids for manufacturing jobs.”
Of course, that’s a contrarian viewpoint; the vast majority of observers say we need millions of people to fill the skills gap, and that manufacturing jobs in the US are going unfilled due to lack of training and lack of skilled people. So how could Ma make such a statement? It’s an important point to consider because what he says carries some weight.
Ma is the founder and chairman of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., the Chinese search engine giant (among many other things). Turns out, he’s talking about the future, a future very different from today—but maybe not that far off.
According to Ma, artificial intelligence (AI) is going to change the world, and will create vast disruptions in the job market. “In the last 200 years, manufacturing [has brought] jobs. But today—because of the artificial intelligence, because of the robots—manufacturing is no longer the main engine of creating jobs,” Ma said in a speech at the Bloomberg Global Business Forum in New York City in September, as reported by CNN. “Talking about manufacturing, we should not be talking Made in China, Made in America,” Ma said. “It’s going to be ‘Made in Internet.’”
Ma said current education does not prepare young people for the work of tomorrow. “The way we teach … is going to be making our kids [lose] jobs [in] the next 30 years,” he said. Of course, since Alibaba is a huge force on the Internet, you could argue that his argument is self-serving. An article on the Bloomberg web site noted that “The message ties neatly into Alibaba’s business plan, which hinges on making the Chinese company the go-to online marketplace for entrepreneurs.”
But even so, Ma has a point. Since the 1950s, automation has eliminated millions of manufacturing jobs, and it’s realistic to expect that AI will eliminate millions more. Today, we need to train people to fill manufacturing jobs. Tomorrow, however, those jobs may look very different indeed.