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The Fourth Industrial Revolution – The Meaning & Future of Work Among the Thinking Machines

It’s rare that business leaders, academics, economists, technologists and even historians all agree. But one thing is unanimous — we, the world, are at the earliest stages of a fourth industrial revolution. A revolution that is affecting every aspect of life, play, work and study. What this means for the current and future state of business, industry and work is an area of intense interest to us and everyone who works in America.

The story thus far

The graphic below illustrates the timeline for the gathering forces of change measured in industrial terms. Most economists and technologists believe we are barely ten years into the brave new age of the fourth revolution.
Infographic illustrating a timeline of industrial change

It’s helpful to think about the main ingredient and driver for each of these seismic, revolutionary shifts across time. The first revolution at the end of the 18th century was sparked by the harnessing of steam as an industrial power force. The second revolution erupted almost exactly one hundred years later with the industrial harnessing of electricity, which powered the mass production lines. The third revolution — again almost exactly one hundred years later — was sparked by the adoption of computing power in the service of hyper-automation.

There are many things special about this, the fourth industrial revolution, but perhaps the most startling is that it has stormed the barricades of industrial history a mere fifty years after its predecessor. The spark behind this firestorm of innovation? Simply and powerfully: machine intelligence.

Welcome to the (thinking) machine

If there’s a tip to the spear of this revolution fueled by intelligence, it is the domain of software engineering.

This field of software design, development and application has been forever altered by the defining characteristic of this revolution ignited by software’s newfound ability to learn — with our help — how to write itself.

This machine learning is now producing, in almost every domain of life and work, technology enabled by artificial intelligence. The resulting machine intelligence is described by computer scientists Russell and Norvig as, “when a machine mimics cognitive functions that humans associate with other human minds, such as learning and problem-solving.”

For the past generation, Aerotek has been working with some of the best and brightest software engineers, data analysts, computer scientists and robotics inventors. Many of them started out their careers just as this revolution was emerging and they are the true vanguard of a new age. Tony DelPreto, the manager of Aerotek's engineering division and expert in embedded systems engineering, knows their story first-hand. “In just a few short years, everything has changed because of machine learning and artificial intelligence. We used to place electrical engineers in traditional engineering jobs within traditional manufacturing businesses. Now, we’re looking for engineers with high-level software skills who can design embedded systems for autonomous vehicles. And they’re being sought by companies like Google or Verizon, companies that have become essential technology partners to traditional automotive manufacturers because they’ve mastered technologies that are being integrated into vehicles more now than ever. Additionally, those same companies that used to be known solely for their mapping software or communications systems are breaking into the autonomous vehicle business.”

Connectivity, embeddedness and virtualization

The combination of machine learning and artificial intelligence is most practically applied in the emerging ecosystem of embedded systems — the intelligence, sensor-driven, networked connectivity that is rapidly threading together a multitude of everyday lives. Beyond our laptops, mobile phones, netbooks, tablets and computers, these connected devices include everything from our running shoes and car dashboards to our air conditioners and refrigerators.

Aerotek’s Emily Vlkojan-Reece is a practice lead for embedded engineering and we asked her how this revolution in connectivity and embedded intelligence was unfolding from her point-of-view from Raleigh-Durham’s Research Triangle.

“When it comes to how products are designed and produced, we’ve seen an incredible step-change in just the past several years. Where automation was the big change factor just a few short years ago, it’s virtualization now.”

“When we talk about the impact that the Internet-of-things (IoT) is having on the jobs required to sustain this incredible surge of innovation, we’re talking about something that’s affecting not only what we produce and buy, but how the people who design and make these new products and services work. Virtualization for some of our teams means that 70% of some groups never or rarely even see each other in a real-time office.”

Emily continued. “Where they work — and where many of the products and services they develop live — is also shifting to the virtual platform of the cloud. We’ve got DevOps engineers working at the intersection of research and development and advanced information technology.

“But the skills we’re asking this new generation of engineers to bring to the job are changing, big-time. We’re seeing cross-training of developers. We’re seeing a new breed of technologist professionals who need to know as much about software language and design as they do about advanced networking protocols. We like to say that ‘everyone’s in the connected products business now!’!”

Automotive 2.0

If you had to pick a figure who personified the second industrial revolution, it’s tough to argue against Henry Ford. Ford didn’t invent electricity, or the automobile or even the assembly line. But he changed the world by being the first industrialist to develop an assembly line technique to produce cars which could be afforded by everyone (including his employees). It’s intriguing to realize that the automobile is once again the star player in the fourth industrial revolution, with almost every major traditional auto manufacturer predicting they will be selling mass-produced autonomous vehicles within the next two or three years.

Tom Capalbo is a leader in talent acquisition at our strategic recruiting center in Chicago that places top engineering talent for the autonomous vehicle industry. We spoke with him about what it’s like on the ground in his corner of the revolution.

“We work with one of the world’s largest industrial vehicle manufacturers. They make big earthmovers, tractors, diggers and haulers. In this category, the cost of operating a vehicle approaches $1 million a year when you factor in salary, insurance and human overhead. To make a fully autonomous vehicle in this space is a huge win.”>

Robot being used in a manufacturing setting

“It’s a good example of how these innovations are changing the types and number of jobs required. More automation means less on the line for the humans at work directly operating the machine. But in this category, it also creates a big demand for new jobs — the people who design and engineer these emerging technologies and the people whose job it will be to oversee and manage the technology on the ground. This fundamentally changes the kinds of engineers we need to fill these new jobs. We need subject matter experts in autonomous vehicle design and this is such a new field these people are hard to find. The top ones are commanding much higher salaries if they have experience.”

Hunting for geniuses

Brian Johnson and Bill Hild are Aerotek practice leads in Minneapolis. Their specialty is finding and placing the best and brightest engineering talent to work on robotics, IoT (internet-of-things) and embedded technologies like autonomous vehicles. Talent like Rod Dockter.

We interviewed a still-jet-lagged Rod Dockter the day after he returned from Agritechnica 2017, a high-tech trade show in Hanover, Germany this past November. We asked Rod if he ever imagined himself working at the bleeding edge of science and industry when he was a little boy. “No, I didn’t think I would be an engineer while I was growing up. I knew I was good at math and that’s what I studied as an undergraduate. Then, through research opportunities and internships, I was exposed to the world of coding, automation and robotics. The field instantly interested me as a way to apply math and logic in the real world.”

We asked Rod if he saw this seller’s market leveling out anytime soon for engineers like him in robotics and IoT. “I think there’s going to a shortage of talent in robotics, IoT and other cutting-edge fields for some time to come. There simply aren’t enough students and young professionals who have a strong background in these specialties. Yet.”

Rod told us he was concerned that there still wasn’t a sufficient number of youngsters choosing to pursue a career like his, in the emerging sciences of applied machine intelligence. But the advice he asked us to pass along was compelling and inspiring.

“If you're young and curious and a tinkerer, you're already halfway there. That’s how I was. The most important part of this field is just to keep trying new things and exploring new ideas. You really don’t have to be a genius to do this work. You just need to be comfortable approaching a problem with creativity and persistence.”

For more on Rod’s career journey and view of the fourth industrial revolution, check out his upcoming feature piece: Genius in the House: Career-making in the Time of the Machines.”

The age of creativity

The market research team at Aerotek spends a big portion of their workday thinking about the implications of this accelerating revolution around all things having to do with working in America. We asked them the fundamental question — is all this emergent intelligent technology replacing more jobs for people than it creates?

Senior researcher Kerry Heffner spoke about a TED Talk which offered an insightful take on the question. “The speaker made a great case saying that the majority of the jobs being replaced by automation and intelligent machines are actually creating net new jobs that are more creative in nature. The types of jobs humans are good at, but not machines.”

Kerry told us this increasingly urgent need for professionals with a sense and skills for creativity is emerging in the life sciences industry. “In the pharmaceutical industry, particularly in biotech, clinical trials are becoming much more complex. Supporting these processes requires a new type of skilled professional with more advanced skills in critical thinking.“

Angela Brill, also from the Aerotek research team, told us something we hadn’t considered. “It’s not just in the technology and life sciences space where we see these changes in the nature of work taking hold. Almost every company in almost every industry is in the intelligence business because customers in every category — from fast-food delivery to e-commerce — are expecting new levels of value from the companies they choose to buy from.”

Eddie Beaver, their research colleague, agreed. “We’ve seen more and more mundane and manual jobs in the financial services and accounting industry increasingly replaced by automation and intelligent systems. But what this means, in almost every case, isn’t a net loss of jobs. These new automated systems now require a different kind of worker, performing value-added services. So we see this trend everywhere, from the manufacturing industry to the traditional office environments.”

Reshoring — the lost jobs return

We noted another trend triggered and fueled by this revolution in industrial intelligence, reshoring. According to a recent Forbes piece, “Automation eliminates the need for many low-paying offshore jobs, allowing some companies to ‘reshore’ labor and production, which increases the need for high-skilled activities, according to a recentpolicy report from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. Independent professionals can fill these high-skilled roles.”

Angela Brill described how we see this in action for our clients and their businesses. “Just a few short years ago, a lot of companies were moving their manufacturing overseas, where unskilled labor was much cheaper than here in the U.S. But now that so many of these manual jobs are being automated in  U.S. plants, companies no longer need to shift jobs offshore.”

Eddie Beaver offered up an illustrative case for this reshoring trend. “The textile industry is a great example. We’ve seen a case where a company had shifted five hundred low-level jobs overseas, but they’ve now replaced that off-shoring of jobs with automation, here in the States. In this case, that automation created fresh demand for 150 skilled jobs here, essentially to mind and manage the new automated machines.”

Internet everywhere

As we suggested, the most visible evidence of this fourth industrial revolution in our everyday lives is the increasing number of connected devices, systems and objects that surround us everywhere. The Internet-of-Things (IoT>) describes this emerging network-saturated world where everything from our fridges to our smart speakers, our Fitbits to our doctor’s offices are sensing and communicating with each other.

Bill Hild and Brian Johnson, the Aerotek practice leads who introduced us to Rod Dockter, gave us their take on how this new world of internet everywhere was impacting working for a living in America.

“In some of these emerging fields we staff for,” Bill began, “like higher level IoT research, there are probably no more than 10,000 very smart people qualified to fill them. In the world. What’s really changed for us is the type of engineering candidate we seek. For an increasing number of these positions, we’re finding people with uniquely strong higher mathematics skills, background and experience. Many have combined skillsets that are still rare. These are renaissance engineers!”

Renaissance engineering

Brian talked about why this diversity of higher skills was a critical factor. “One of the biggest challenges in this emerging area of robotics, artificial intelligence and embedded networking is that each company is trying to build teams that connect such a diversity and number of devices and systems and platforms.”

We asked Bill and Brian about this emerging generation of engineers and wondered what made them special from generations past. “Like past generations of engineers,” Brian said, “a lot of these people are tinkerers. Working on inventions and idea s at home and in their garage. We were looking for top talent in robotics for one of our clients. The candidate we ended up connecting to the client had a doctorate in mechanical engineering — and his thesis project was a machine vision invention for use in robotics. He helped them develop a breakthrough for their surgical arms line. However, the relevant experience for the client was the side project the candidate had worked on: a self-directed robot.”

Demand outracing supply

One of the recurrent themes we encountered in talking to people about the impact this revolution was having on businesses in every category is the mismatch between talent supply and job demand

“It’s a huge challenge,” Bill said. “Many companies are looking for people with on-the-job experience in these emergent skills and tools of machine learning, artificial intelligence and robotics. But these technologies are still so new that, even with data scientists and engineers coming out of schools with advanced degrees, there simply aren’t enough engineers who have had more than a year or two of real-world experiences yet. Companies are reluctant to pay people to learn on the job, so it’s a chicken-and-egg problem.”

Brian agreed. “Yes, in industries increasingly reliant on finding and keeping data science and advanced engineering talent, it is definitely a ‘candidate market’, where the supply of top talent is vastly outstripped by the demand. The good news for professionals with the skills and the experience is for the foreseeable future, they’re commanding top pay.”>

One of the issues faced by almost every industry in their race to find top, experienced talent is the university and college systems are struggling to keep up with the advancing needs of industry. Aerotek researcher Kerry Heffner told us, “Many colleges are playing catchup when it comes to the emerging skills needed by companies and the degree programs they offer. Even those who are responding with degree programs in these advanced areas of artificial intelligence and machine learning are awarding degrees but their grads are not entering the work-world with the kinds of skills companies are seeking. It’s a problem.&rdquo

Life-saving work in revolutionary times

Advances in computer, network and intelligent machines are impacting industries beyond automotive, IoT and consumer technology. We spoke with several of our Aerotek colleagues who lead practice groups within the life sciences categories to learn how the revolution was playing out in their world of work.

“There are two areas where we see massive change underway — in the world of medical devices and in the emerging field of biotech pharmaceuticals,” said Justin Dragoo a strategic account executive at Aerotek. “These industries are in the midst of huge change. When it comes to medical devices, it’s about embedded connectivity, the internet-of-things. Things like diabetic sensors using Bluetooth to alert and trigger treatment, hearing aids linked to smart phones and so much more.

“In the emerging biotech industry, advanced data science is the innovation engine. Think about how difficult it’s been to solve for treatments or even cures for the hundreds of types of cancers. When you apply the tools of deep learning, artificial intelligence to the task, you begin to see the potential. Knowledge is the key that will unlock exponential cures — and one day immunization — for the cancers and other diseases that take so many lives every year.”

Justin echoed our research team’s frustrations with the demand for advanced data scientists and engineers far out-pacing supply.

“It’s a huge challenge. All of these biotech and medical device companies need to collect, mine, manipulate and manage huge data sets. Blood samples are a good example. Think about all the data created every day with the number of blood samples being taken and processed across the entire U.S. If you’re in the business of DNA analysis informing possible life-saving cures, you need the big-brain data scientists and advanced researchers to work on these data sets. But so many of the universities still haven’t developed the curricula to train and graduate the engineers and scientists that industries are clamoring for to help them solve these problems.”

Justin also echoed our other colleagues’ insight about the opportunity all this is creating for a new generation of creative thinkers, even in the hard arts of math and science. He offered this example.

“We recently placed a microbiologist at one of the largest global pharmaceutical companies. He was working on a project inside a complex production-plant where it took days to bring the line back up whenever it came down. This creative guy developed an algorithm using an Excel spreadsheet to cut the downtime to four hours. Think about the massive cost and time-savings this solution provided the company. Those are the kind of people thriving amidst these heady, revolutionary times.”

From concert pianist to biotech quality representative

Today, Shae Redfield is a Senior Quality Assurance Representative in the biotech field. However, right up until her sophomore year in college, Shae knew she wanted a career as a concert pianist. “I actually started at Indiana University as a piano performance major, and that’s what took me to Bloomington originally. I worked hard and trained for it from my earliest years. Then my sophomore year I changed my major and ended up getting a biology degree and piano became a hobby.”

We told Shae what so many of our colleagues suggested about businesses seeking to find and retain professionals skilled in critical thinking and creativity. Shae said she saw this happening in her industry.

“When I think about the skills I acquired and honed as a classical pianist — an obsession with detail, of deep concentration, focused work and multitasking — I realize these skills are the same ones I rely on in quality assurance. In my experience, music and science have a lot more in common than some might think.”

We asked Shae if she felt that the increasing levels of automation and machine intelligence were replacing more jobs than they’re creating. “I don’t see that. What I do see is all these new technologies opening up more creative opportunities for new careers. Technology is everywhere, in everything, impacting every job. This is why I also would say those who worry about people being overly involved with their phones and their apps, I’d say ‘give the kids all the technology they want – they’re going to need it!’”

To hear more on Shae’s journey and view of the fourth industrial revolution on pharmaceutical manufacturing, check out her upcoming feature piece: “Quality Matters – The Career Journey of a Pharmaceutical Quality Assurance Representative.”

Pills being packaged by a machine

The tip of the spear

We turned back to Eddie Beaver for some closing insights about the nature of the changes we’re witnessing in these early days of this growing industrial revolution.

“It’s really in its earliest stages. So many of the innovations that are changing the nature of work right now are actually based on patents developed in the 70s and 80s. Most of the earliest and most impactful changes we see heading into 2018 are the effect of embedded software and the advancing field of robotics. But most analysts across every industry will tell you we are still at the very earliest stages of a true revolution. Especially when it comes to the changes we’ll see with the increasingly sophisticated uses of neural networks, deep machine learning and the resulting artificial intelligence this creates.”

Value creation is certainly one of the most significant outcomes of the gathering revolution, in particular the various ways that artificial intelligence is being applied to create value for companies and their customers. Aerotek’s parent company Allegis published a white paper recently which cited a Bank of America economic analysis claiming AI will “fuel growth and cost reduction that generates $14-$33 trillion annually.”

Eddie talked about how this is playing out on the ground in late 2017. “One of the most important changes we do see is subtler than just the effect of technology on the workplace — it’s what some companies are doing with it, from a business standpoint. It’s related to the question of whether all these intelligent machines mean a net gain or a net loss of jobs. We’re seeing the smarter companies doing something that is truly revolutionary — instead of just trying to reduce costs, they’re actually focusing on how they can add new value to their customers’ lives.”

Angela Brill, Eddie’s research colleague agreed. “For the companies who lead, it’s about value first. Cost reductions follow.”

Their colleague Kerry offered up a final thought, having to do with Aerotek’s role in the revolution. “We’re in a unique position. On one hand we’re so close to what industry is demanding of their emerging workforce, that we’re advising universities on the degree programs and curricula they need to add. In some cases, leaders of segments within our business are also immersed in trends and advancements in emerging technologies. We sometimes know the type of qualified engineer or data scientist companies need as well or even better than they do.”

“But most importantly,” Kerry said with equal parts excitement and pride, “we’ve got a front-row seat at this revolution and nobody’s in a better position to help new professionals match their skills, talents, experience and passions to the ever-changing demands of the workplace in America.”

As always, if you are intrigued by anything that you read above, chances are we’ve got a job for you.

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