No worker left behind by AI, only if we try

Laura Tyson
Lenny Mendonca
Economists predict that technological change will eventually create as many jobs as it destroys. But there will be significant hurdles along the way.
Laura Tyson
Lenny Mendonca

A week rarely goes by without a new dystopian prediction about technologically driven mass unemployment. As artificial intelligence and robotic technologies advance faster than even their own developers expected, studies are finding that many of the tasks and occupations that employ people can already be automated.

According to the McKinsey Global Institute, 9-32 percent of the workforce in developed economies could be displaced within a decade.

Low-skilled occupations that require less formal education will be the most susceptible to automation. Jobs requiring professional training and/or tertiary education will be less threatened, at least for now. Either way, we urgently need to start furnishing workers with new skills to meet future labor-market demands.

To that end, US businesses, educational institutions, NGOs and state and local governments have begun to rethink education and training. Their work is made more urgent by the fact that the federal government is shirking its responsibilities in this area.

Meeting the skills challenge will require an epic reinvention of workforce learning and training. The response must be on par with the establishment of universal secondary education a century ago, or with the “college for all” movement that began in the 1960s. But it must be much faster, and it will have to be spearheaded by public-private partnerships.

Economists predict that technological change will eventually create as many jobs as it destroys. But there will be significant hurdles along the way. As things stand, too many US workers lack the skills needed for the good jobs of the future. Though around one-third of US adults have a four-year college degree — the highest proportion on record — an equal share has no more than a high-school diploma. For workers at all educational levels, acquiring additional skills to stay abreast of technologically driven occupational changes will require less “seat-time” in traditional classrooms, and more dynamic forms of workforce training.

A good example of such training is offered by Skillful, a nonprofit venture supported by the Markle Foundation, Microsoft, LinkedIn, and the state of Colorado. Skillful is running a pilot project in Colorado to help workers without a college degree upgrade and market their skills.

For Skillful CEO Beth Cobert, the goal is to get employers to start appreciating “hard” skills, such as carpentry or web design, and “soft” skills in communication or leadership and to recognize workers’ potential for future development.

Skillful’s approach is premised on the fact that a true skills-based labor market requires collaboration among many players. Employers and industry groups need to be in closer contact with educational institutions.

“We’re trying to integrate all these participants in the labor market,” says Cobert, and they “typically aren’t talking that much with each other.”

According to the OECD, workers without a college degree are less likely to participate in any type of workforce training. That is why Skillful is leveraging industry and geographical data to help workers discover marketable skills they already have, careers they might want, and places where they can pursue further professional development or new employment. Making such information easily available online is crucial to encourage workers whose jobs are most at risk to explore their training options.

Moreover, Skillful and Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper have launched an intensive program to train career coaches.

At this point, there are no right or wrong strategies, and it is heartening to see that many states are experimenting with different initiatives and sharing lessons learned. They are showing that progressive federalism can work.

For example, North Carolina has created a pathway program to support training for low-skill adults and out-of-school youth.

In Ohio, high-school graduates can obtain a rigorous “Professional Readiness” certification covering 15 skill areas.

Given the high stakes for millions of workers, policymakers should follow the lead of those who are already strengthening education and adult-learning programs so that no workers are left behind by the driving force of automation.

Laura Tyson, a former chair of the US President’s Council of Economic Advisers, is a professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, and a senior adviser at the Rock Creek Group. Lenny Mendonca, Chairman of New America, is Senior Partner Emeritus at McKinsey & Company. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.

Special Reports