Workers Must Run Faster to Keep up With New Industry Skills

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Imagine being a fly on the wall at conversation between economists, business leaders, or policymakers. You'll likely overhear them debating whether or not technological innovation will replace most of America's existing workforce. Just recently Ford announced plans to cut a tenth of its salaried workforce. Where will those who receive pink slips find their next job?

The issue boils down to whether today's so-called "creative destruction"—the prospect of driverless trucks, for instance—is different from every previous technological upheaval to the workforce. Some aren't so sure. In the past, the textile loom rendered legions of workers obsolete—and yet manual laborers eventually found new ways to make a living. Containerized shipping prompted companies to lay off the bulk of their stevedores, and America survived. Some experts argue that today's truck drivers will simply find new jobs that haven't yet been invented.

Opponents of this view regard the naysayers as naïve. They argue that the upheaval wrought by the most recent advances in information technology—robots, drones, artificial intelligence, personalized medicine—are an order of magnitude more disruptive than anything we've ever seen. When America moved from farm to factory, field workers took up new stations on the assembly line. This time, however, there's no place for employees to land easily and quickly. Nowadays, no one's job is safe. Employees in New York's hedge funds and law firms are becoming as vulnerable as workers in Michigan's auto factories ever were.

Regardless of which view prevails, however, the current debate largely ignores a deeper problem. It may well be that millions of new jobs emerge in the not-too-distant future. In fact, fields such as cybersecurity, genetics, and engineering are already demanding millions of new employees. In the innovation world, where I work, virtually every company badly needs technologists. Indeed, on the day of President Trump's inauguration, there were 5.5 million job openings throughout the country.

The current debate on jobs versus technology largely ignores a deeper problem, which is that the workforce must keep pace with evolving demand or what I call the "job velocity challenge." Technological transformation is moving so quickly that we may become incapable of shoehorning the existing workforce into the jobs of tomorrow. Newly unemployed truck drivers can't become cyber security consultants as quickly as unemployed farm hands could take posts on an assembly line. Moreover, multi-year retraining processes too frequently train people for jobs that become obsolete very shortly thereafter—certainly more quickly than had been the case under the old-school, lifelong "career" timeline.

The average American family today lives virtually paycheck-to-paycheck, with studies showing that an unanticipated expense of even a few hundred dollars would overwhelm their savings. Retraining for months or even years clearly would not be feasible, especially if workers must pay for that training. The fact that millions of unemployed workers will be incapable of filling millions of unfilled jobs in reasonable timeframes that ensure they can stay afloat—is among the greatest challenges of our time.

Our education system is totally unprepared to "re-skill" the population – in fact, it is not even set up to do so. Educational institutions – especially four-year colleges – still largely endeavor to "graduate" you in your early twenties when you are "ready for the workforce," and maybe provide you with graduate degrees or some professional development down the line. The job velocity challenge requires a very different, multi-pronged set of solutions.

We should make a massive commitment to increase and re-skill the nation's workforce by expanding offerings at professional schools, promoting good corporate skills development programs , and elevating community college programs that have long tried to provide later-life education with few resources or recognition. Some start-ups today are reinventing upskilling, too. Learners Guild, for instance, pays you to learn and then takes a part of your future earnings to pay your continuing education forward. But those start-ups will need government and corporate investment to scale and spread the best solutions across our massive economy.

In the short term, we should foster small businesses that hire employees with traditional skills, since these will help provide an "employment bridge" as automation deprives people of work. After all, larger employers that can afford automation will do so first. Along the same lines, to prepare for an economy with more "gigs" and fewer "good" jobs, we should find new ways to give people reasonable, affordable access to the benefits once provided by nearly every full-time job, including healthcare and retirement savings. We should also restart a conversation about a modern, broad national service program for young people exiting high school, with options spanning education, infrastructure, both domestic and foreign aid, and the military. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we should start a new dialogue about how to bring meaning to our lives outside of work. In our culture, people traditionally equate work with self-worth—worrisome, given what is happening to the traditional job.

"If destruction be our lot," Abraham Lincoln once remarked, "we must ourselves be its author and finisher." As Lincoln was suggesting, it is unlikely that an external enemy would destroy America, but internal troubles most certainly could. Almost two hundred years later, the lightning speed of our current economic transformation represents a truly existential threat to our democracy, and to one of its foundational aspirations – the American Dream. However, if we step up, we have an extraordinary opportunity to eradicate scarcity and create a better life for our citizens. We need to move now to create the workforce and the society of the future and overcome the job velocity challenge.

Tomorrow will be too late.

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