Not all researchers agree that artificial intelligence is as important a development as electricity or fire, or that hundreds of millions of jobs will be automated in the next decade. But it is clear that an increasing array of tasks will soon be completed by machines. And workers need to be prepared for a future in which they may have to develop a larger skillset than ever before.
Tech-friendly think tank The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) today published a report detailing how worker training policies will need to be adjusted in the age of AI and robotics. In the report, ITIF gives a vast number of policy recommendations, most of which will likely not come to fruition. But the report does offer a useful overview of shortfalls that exist in current training and retraining programs.
VentureBeat spoke with Maria Heidkamp, director of the New Start Career Network at Rutger University’s Heldrich Center for Workforce Development, about some of the biggest barriers workers will face when searching for job retraining programs. “Many, especially older dislocated workers, haven’t been in a classroom since they were 18 and may be leery of going back to school,” Heidkamp said. “Many are not sure what training might offer a good return on investment for them, and it can be difficult to find unbiased career advice.”
It’s worth nothing that ITIF, which has received funding from tech lobbying groups such as the Wireless Association and the Information Technology Industry Council, offers a rosier outlook than other organizations in terms of how technology will impact the workforce. A previous study conducted by ITIF estimates that only 8 percent of jobs will be at high risk of automation by 2024.
ITIF president Rob Atkinson, who authored the report, claims that automation will allow recent college graduates who are overqualified for the jobs that they are currently in to move up the job ladder. Atkinson also rejects the idea that automation will worsen income inequality.
The thinking is that as lower-wage jobs are automated, companies will pass those savings on to consumers by lowering the prices of goods and services. Spending will increase, thus creating more higher-wage, high-skilled jobs.
Nonetheless, the ITIF acknowledges that workers will “lose their jobs through no fault of their own, including from technology” and that the U.S. needs to do a better job of investing in programs that will lessen the blow. The U.S. currently invests just 0.1 percent of its GDP in workforce training and support programs.
The policy recommendations fall into four categories: ensuring full employment, nationally and regionally; ensuring workers have needed competencies before they are laid off; reducing financial hardships for laid-off workers; and providing better transition assistance to help laid-off workers find new employment.
In order to support regional economic development, ITIF suggests creating “regional growth poles,” a solution that will likely pique the curiosity of state and city governments across the U.S.
According to Atkinson, each governor would identify two to six potential growth pole communities in these states. He told VentureBeat in an email that a growth pole community would be “150,000 to 400,000 in population; not adjacent to a larger metro; and ideally having a good university. Lafayette Indiana; Eugene, Oregon; Santa Fe, NM; etc. would be examples.”
Congress would then increase funding for the Economic Development Administration, and 75 percent of those funds would go toward growth pole communities. The idea is that this would be a better use of federal money, which Atkinson said currently goes to too many places that “have very little prospect of an economic turnaround.”
However, the use of federal money alone won’t lead to an uptick in the number of businesses and jobs. Atkinson acknowledged that incentives will likely be needed for the private sector to convince businesses that are currently in overcrowded tech hubs like Silicon Valley and Boston to invest in growth poles.
Other policy solutions that ITIF touts include increased investment in apprenticeship programs, the creation of new kinds of technical colleges, and the establishment of portable training accounts that employees and employers can add money to, similar to a 401(K). A good number of the proposals ITIF suggests would require businesses to pay more taxes — which is not something the private sector is likely to jump at.
The ITIF does come out against universal basic income, claiming that it will encourage workers to stay out of the job market (though a recently released working paper on Alaska’s universal basic income-like Permanent Fund found that the workforce participation rate did not change after the fund was instituted).
What the ITIF report doesn’t address is which policy solutions are most urgent.
Heidkamp, who hadn’t reviewed the ITIF’s report, said that the Heldrich Center is currently studying the effectiveness of work-based learning programs, like apprenticeships and on-the-job training programs — in order to make it easier for workers to gain the skills needed when they may have to find another job.
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