Elon Musk Wants You to Learn Soft Skills to Keep Your Job

Tesla CEO Elon Musk thinks you should work on your “soft skills,” especially if you want to keep your job in the face of increasingly sophisticated automation.

“A.I. will make jobs kind of pointless,” Musk told the audience at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai, where he sat alongside Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma for a discussion about artificial intelligence (A.I.) and machine learning. (Hat tip to CNBC for covering the event.)

Even developers won’t be safe from the rise of the machines, Musk added, especially once A.I. is trained to write decent software. However, machines are a long way from mastering human-to-human interaction, which creates an opening for anyone looking to stay employed.

“People enjoy, fundamentally, interacting with other people,” he said. “If you’re working on something that involves people or engineering, it’s probably a good approach.” 

Musk isn’t the only person making this point, of course. For years, those involved in A.I. and machine learning have cautioned that job losses as a result of automation and robotics could become significant over the next few decades. And while the public views such technologies as primarily a threat to factory and manual-labor jobs, sophisticated algorithms could one day take over human jobs in everything from customer service to datacenter operations. 

When people use the term “soft skills,” they’re generally referring to the following:

  • Communication
  • Engagement
  • Flexibility/Adaptability
  • Efficiency
  • Observation/Listening

These are all very possible to master, provided someone is willing to learn. Communication is obviously a key one for many technologists, who often must convey complicated ideas to executives and other team members who may not have a technological background; in those cases, taking an empathetic stance, and trying to see the issue from the other person’s point of view, can help the technologist frame out their ideas in a way that’s understandable even to someone who thinks the pop-out DVD tray on their workstation tower is a coffee-cup holder.

Engagement is also important, especially as many technologists like to “silo” their work away from others within their organization. While such silos may seem like an efficient way to save time (and cut down on bothersome questions), it actually results in deep isolation, which can become a problem when a technologist needs buy-in from other employees for a particular project. As nerve-wracking as it can sometimes prove, engaging with colleagues is often super-beneficial.

Flexibility and a focus on efficiency can help teams endure even the fastest-changing circumstances, such as in startups. And learning how to effectively listen never, ever hurts—no matter what your age. Employers have also begun testing job candidates’ aptitude for certain soft skills during the application and interviewing process, using everything from neuroscience games to old-fashioned lunch meetings, so it’s important to recognize and master these skills as quickly as possible if you’re on the job hunt. 

Will soft skills spare your job from automation? That depends on what you do, and nothing’s ever guaranteed. However, effective communication and flexibility can make you a prime candidate for leading teams and even expanding into management (that is, if you want to end up in management), which in turn can offer a bit more job security—no matter how advanced A.I. may eventually become. 

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