How can Generation Z compete with robots? Focus on the human touch

The head of Ai-Da, a humanoid robot capable of drawing people from life using her bionic eyes and hand, is seen in the offices of robotics company Engineered Arts, in Falmouth
FILE PHOTO: The head of Ai-Da, a humanoid robot capable of drawing people from life using her bionic eyes and hand, is seen in the offices of robotics company Engineered Arts, in Falmouth, Cornwall, Britain February 7, 2019. REUTERS/Matthew Stock - RC1C78FA4F20

December 16, 2019

By Caroline Monahan

NEW YORK (Reuters) – It sounds counterintuitive, but members of Generation Z will have to focus on human connections if they want to compete with robots for the jobs of the future.

Born after 1996 on the heels of the millennials, Gen Z is just entering the workforce. Its members are the first true digital natives, and their ability to adapt to an automating workplace will likely determine their success.

While science and engineering degrees are on the rise, “soft” skills such as intellectual insight, flexibility, intuition and creativity will be essential for workers competing with machines that are growing more technically proficient.

Here are the soft skills Gen Z members need to succeed:

* Be an effective strategic communicator

Some employers fear that digital native workers might be too much like the robots they are competing with. What will make Gen Z workers stand out? Good communication skills.

Those in technology fields often work remotely or in relative isolation, so they do not always get enough time to sharpen their interpersonal skills, said Jason Wingard, dean and professor of the school of professional studies at Columbia University.

There is a way for young people to train for that skill, though, added Vicki Walia, chief talent and capability officer at financial services giant Prudential.

“Gen Zs should not under-emphasize the importance of relationship building, listening, communicating, working collaboratively,” Walia said.

One way to do this is through mentorship. Young workers should work to form relationships with older colleagues or even engage in “reverse mentorships,” helping an older worker learn a new technology skill.

Last year, Russell Bingham, a senior engineering major, participated in the clinic program at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California, which partners student teams with companies. The interactions were “eye-opening,” Bingham said, making him find better ways to interact with colleagues.

* Be a continuous learner

While most of Generation Z is still in school, they already need to think about how to continually adapt to a fast-changing world. Their advantage, said Walia, is that they are “digitally capable and multidimensional.”

To succeed, they must be pragmatic and realistic about their skills and how desired skill sets will change. For example, Walia said graduates might be trained in Microsoft Excel, but a job might require them to learn how to interpret that data.

“Storytelling skills are an important part of being able to help others interpret the data, and use it to tell a story through data visualization,” Walia said.

More industry knowledge also equals more money – up to $6,387 more a year in salary in a high-wage industry – according to a study the MIT-IBM Watson AI lab did between 2010 and 2017.

* Find work that gives you a sense of purpose

Nearly half of the Gen Zs said they had experienced job burnout in the past year, according to a survey by ServiceNow, a Santa Clara, California cloud computing company. Half said they were considering a job outside their current industry because of it.

Workers are at their best when doing something meaningful to them, said Obed Louissaint, vice president of talent at IBM.

To avoid burnout, young people should couple finding purpose with taking proper mental breaks and trying to build healthy habits, Louissaint added.

Harvey Mudd student Bingham, for instance, is looking for a job that lets him apply his science and engineering skills to projects with societal impact. He recently worked as part of the expedition team that located the HMS Urge submarine after it was lost at sea for 77 years.

“That experience has led me to strongly value the fact that my unique robotics skill set can be an asset to people and projects totally outside the direct development of robots,” Bingham said.

(Editing by Beth Pinsker, Lauren Young and David Gregorio)