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Management Redefining career status: An office worker is more replaceable by AI than a trades person

What makes for a career today? For many people who are mid-career now (in their mid-40s to early 50s), there are entire job categories today that never would have been considered as a viable career when they were starting out. Similarly, there are job categories that have or will soon disappear as progress marches forward.

In between those leading and trailing edge careers lies a considerable number of job groupings, each with their own concept of a “career.”

While we often might think that only white-collar office workers and professionals can really follow a defined career path, there actually are a number of hands-on trades and traditional blue-collar roles that deserve to be looked at more closely when people are making decisions about their career futures.

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Skilled trades, for example, are seeing aging work-force numbers and job vacancy rates that are making some of these professions more attractive for younger workers who want to combine their intellect with hands-on roles, and potentially command a premium salary in the process.

Unfortunately, social attitudes toward the trades have often meant that hands-on workers are assumed to be in these roles because they didn’t have other career options.

Indeed, some readers might remember their parents warning, “Get an education or you’ll wind up working in a trade” as a stimulus to get that university degree. Today, however, the lines between being a skilled tradesperson and occupying a professional role are blurring continuously.

A refrigerator repair person running a computer diagnostic to find out what’s wrong with your appliance requires technological proficiency and problem-solving skills on par with or exceeding that of an office worker.

Indeed, it seems probable that a general office worker is more readily replaceable with an artificial intelligence program than that repairman (even accounting for futuristic robots making house calls). Who really has more job security moving forward?

In 1992, Robert Reich had just published his book The Work of Nations prior to becoming then-U.S. president Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Labour. He concluded that the old social contract around work was broken: There would be very few lifetime careers with the same company. Instead, he predicted many workers could now expect to have dozens of jobs during their working lives, potentially across two or more different career paths.

That volatility is the new norm and quite often the choice to jump career tracks is purposeful. People seeking new challenges or going through transition opt to retrain or reinvent their skills, or strike out on their own.

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In a return to the values of craftsmanship, some choose working more with their hands – in roles that require physical skill more than acumen with word processors, websites or spreadsheets.

Where would we be without some of these trades? Many of our key resource industries would grind to a halt without welders, plumbers, electricians and many more roles that build the infrastructure upon which we rely. Same goes for those many repairs around your home, where few of us have time or skill to tackle a troublesome freezer or replace a furnace.

It’s perhaps an indication of the skill appreciated in some of these roles that we accept a four-hour service window as pretty much the norm. In contrast, when was the last time your dentist told you that your appointment would be sometime between 9 and 12, and just stay in the waiting room until he or she deigns to arrive?

The dramatic cave rescue of a trapped soccer team in Thailand also highlighted a whole cast of specialized trades that often go hidden. There were military and civilian divers who skillfully executed a rescue amid the treacherous confines of a cave system and fast-moving muddy water (at risk of life and death). There also were pump specialists, who found ways to keep water levels in the cave low enough to attempt a rescue.

Until we see the valuable roles these jobs play in a pinch, we’re largely unaware of their daily contributions.

So, next time you’re thinking of what you might want to do in your second or third career, or even your first, don’t immediately dismiss those hands-on trades: Many are coming back, and with more complex skills than you’d imagine.

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