Government Jobs in the Digital Age: What Will Be Left?

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To say the workforce has changed from a generation ago would be a dramatic understatement. Who could have foreseen the digitalization and rapid high-tech changes that have gripped the private sector, not to mention the virtual world that has appeared before our eyes? Before the turn of the century, automatic teller machines (ATMs) and pay-at-the-pump gas stations were cutting edge innovations we were still getting used to. Today, those are obviously still with us, but technology has completely deconstructed the way we shop, the way we communicate, the way we pay our bills, the way we work and the way we literally get from Point A to Point B.

The next natural stop for the Age of Automation, it would seem, is the government. And it is something for which we all need to be prepared. Particularly those who have spent their careers working in the public sector.

In many ways it’s already here. To use one small example, let’s look at the Department of Motor Vehicles. It used to be to register a car, or sometimes even renew a registration, people had to take time out of their workdays and wait in long lines-often excruciatingly long lines-to get it done. No more. It can all be done online, even for people with accompanying issues that make registration more challenging, such as back taxes owed. It can all be done from the comfort of the home or the office without wasting valuable workday hours. And that means major changes for the people who work those jobs. A recent study at Oxford University (called “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerization?”) found that numerous public sector jobs could be at risk for obsolescence as automation and computerization become more and more the norm. Some of the leading professions in the direct firing line include library personnel, postal workers, transportation/traffic workers and even parking enforcement officials (aka “meter maids”). It’s fairly simple to see how all could experience a reduced degree of importance in the automation age.

Naturally, this does not apply to all government-based jobs. The study makes it clear that computers are not likely to ever replace police officers, firefighters and other public safety workers, nor are they likely to eliminate teaching jobs, judges, safety inspectors or other areas when human intelligence and intuition cannot truly be removed from the equation. Still, the changes are coming fast; think of how quickly some assembly line workers have been replaced by machines, or how devastating the online shopping world has been to brick-and-mortar retail outlets. If it happened in the private sector it can happen in the public sector too-perhaps not every corner of it, but enough for people to be drastically affected by it.

This does not mean those government jobs people have spent entire careers building are necessarily going to disappear tomorrow; what it means is we need to recognize that changes are coming and adapt to them before too long. State and local governments need to embrace innovation and find ways to shape these professions within the changing landscape, rather than fight against it and hope for the best. Employees should welcome opportunities for higher-tech job training in order to hone and cultivate newer, more useful skills. The key word here is “opportunity”-those who treat this rapidly changing landscape as one will be much better equipped for what this “new normal” holds for them. It is impossible to foretell what the future holds, to know which technology will be next to wow us and completely alter our way of thinking. But we know it’s coming, particularly in the public sector. And the challenge now is to keep up with it. Being surprised by change no longer works in the 2018 public workplace, but conversely, being ready for it should work to our advantage.

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