[Online Exclusive] Tales of the Elevator Operator
By Jeremy Auger
As new technology is applied to automating jobs, workers will have to adapt at a pace of change that we’ve never seen before
Remember all the hubbub about elevator operators losing their jobs? Of course, you don’t. Yet, despite the lack of fanfare, “elevator operator” is the sole job classification that was eliminated from the US Census primarily due to automation . As we contemplate jobs disappearing with the rise of the machines, a look back at the story of the elevator operator might provide a glimpse into the future of work.
For the uninitiated, elevators used to be “driven” by a dedicated operator, who made sure the car stopped smoothly at the right floor. While automation was possible in the early 20th century, riders demonstrated some resistance to self-driving elevators. A strike of elevator operators in New York City in 1945, however, left a million and a half office workers hiking up flights of stairs to get to their high-rise offices . That opened up people’s willingness to accept automated elevators – and began the path to the eventual demise of the elevator operator.
So, automation and its impact on the workforce has been happening for a long time. What’s changing are the types of jobs impacted – and the speed of the change.
Automation is not new, but it’s being implemented faster than before
The emergence of artificial intelligence means that it’s becoming possible to automate far more than just elevators. According to an Oxford University study, as much as 47% of US employment could be automated within the next decade or so. A study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which looked at tasks instead of job classifications, predicts that the number of jobs that are totally automatable across 21 OECD countries is actually relatively low – just 9%. However, the study predicts that a more likely scenario is for machines to take over some tasks within existing jobs, freeing human workers to take on new and more complex – and higher value – tasks.
The bottom line – many of our jobs will be impacted, one way or another, by increasing automation. Some jobs will be taken over entirely by machines, following the path of the elevator operator. Others will find elements of their jobs automated. Workers will be expected to shift their time and effort to higher-value activities – many of which may be new and will require additional training.
What’s truly new, though, is the pace of this change.
When elevator operators were phased out, there weren’t protests in the streets or op-eds in the papers – because the process happened slowly. Elevators are expensive, so automation happened as buildings were updated or new buildings were built. The elimination of elevator operators happened over decades, allowing some operators to simply retire without being replaced while others shifted into other customer service activities.
Given the pace of technological adoption, today’s workers likely won’t have this luxury of time to adapt to changes.
Technology changes at a rapid pace
Think about how quickly smartphones became ubiquitous. The first iPhone launched in 2007; a decade later one billion iPhones have been sold .
Or, think about how quickly the notion of automated driving has gone from science fiction to a fast-emerging technology. Some of that advancement started in 2004, when the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) offered a $1 million prize for the first team to create a vehicle that could autonomously drive a 150-mile route through the Mojave Desert. In the first year, over 100 teams competed. None successfully finished . Yet, it started research efforts that quickly progressed. Jump forward to 2016 and Waymo – the part of Google dedicated to developing automated driving technology – had vehicles driving in autonomous mode a total of 635,868 miles over 12 months; and that’s just in California . Technological change that once took a generation now happens over the span of a decade – or faster.
As new technology is applied to automating jobs – and elements of jobs – workers will have to continually adapt. They’ll need access to training to enable them to take on higher-value activities. The trouble is that today’s education system isn’t ready for this massive influx of life-long learners who need to quickly gain the skills required to progress in their careers.
We’re seeing this begin to happen. As workers realize they need to update their skills, the number of non-traditional students, defined as students older than 25 and often working while going to school, is growing. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 42% of all college students will be over the age of 25 by 2020 . These students need a more flexible approach that allows them to focus their limited time on acquiring the new skills they need, not reviewing knowledge they already have. Meeting that need will require a new approach that makes education accessible to a lot more people.
Evolve the education system to better prepare the workforce
Minnesota’s Riverland Community College is an early example of what this might look like. The school piloted on online-based FlexPace program to allow working adults to rapidly earn their business degree while balancing the demands of work, life and school. The program breaks a traditional two-year program into short, six-week courses that can be taken one at a time. FlexPace students can complete a full business associate’s degree in as little as two years and nine months while managing their other responsibilities. Opening up their business program to non-traditional students has led to a 115% increase in enrolment .
Ironically, programs like FlexPace are possible because of advances in technology that allow students to access learning at their convenience, progressing at their own pace, while enjoying an engaging, effective learning experience.
Of course, one pilot in Minnesota is just the beginning. But it points a way forward: leveraging technology tools to enable non-traditional students – which will soon include many of us – to access the training they need to take on the tasks that machines can’t!
Jeremy Auger is Chief Strategy Officer and co-founder at D2L, a Canadian technology company dedicated to help transform the way the world learns by enabling educators to build engaging, accessible digital learning experiences. He is directly responsible for D2L’s company strategy development, intellectual property strategy, mergers and acquisitions, and government relations.
 How Computer Automation Affects Occupations: Technology, Jobs, and Skills, pg. 5
 Remembering When Driverless Elevators Drew Skepticism, NPR
 The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation? Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, pg. 44.
 Arntz, M., t. Gregory and U. Zierahn (2016), “The Risk of Automation for Jobs in OECD Countries: A Comparative Analysis”, OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers, No. 189, OECD Publishing, Paris.
 Apple has sold over 1 billion iPhones, The Verge, July 27, 2016
 DARPA Grand Challenge: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DARPA_Grand_Challenge
 Waymo’s self-driving cars are performing way better, Business Insider, February 1, 2017
 Weise, Michelle R. “Got Skills? Why Online Competency-Based Education Is the Disruptive Innovation for Higher Education”
 D2L Customer Story: Riverland Community College is providing working adults with flexible and personalized education options