Automation has been a prime topic in our nation’s political discourse in recent years. As the common doom-and-gloom narrative goes, the rise of automation and corresponding technologies such as AI, robotics, and the internet of things will spell the end of work as we know it, leading to the disruption of labor markets and the displacement of millions of workers.
There is some measure of truth in these predictions, with numerous studies highlighting specific jobs and skill sets that will be automated out of existence. According to a study from the McKinsey Global Institute, occupations that perform “physical activities in highly structured and predictable work environments” (i.e., clerical work, retail, physical labor, etc.) are the most susceptible to automation – and the disappearance of these jobs will have long-term economic consequences. MGI notes that these activities account for an estimated 51% of work taking place in the U.S. economy – and almost $2.7 trillion in wages.
However, despite the narrative of inevitable job loss and eroding economic opportunity, there is a path forward for American workers. But it will require reframing the current debate on automation and providing our workforce with the skills needed to succeed in the emerging STEM economy.
Leveraging automation: The real policy debate
At the moment, debate seems to be centered on weighing the pros and cons of globalization and automation, as if we can realistically turn back the clock on such forces. When it comes to technology and innovation, the river ultimately runs one way. It’s a question of when, not if, these technologies are adopted en masse – and rather than debating regressive policies that cling to the past to protect soon-to-be-obsolete occupations, our focus should be on how we can best leverage automation to boost productivity, increase economic opportunity, and stimulate growth.
To do this, we must ultimately end the skills gap – a massive endeavor that will require broad policy reforms and heavy investment from the public and private sectors.
Revamping the workforce
As automation and technology change the nature of work from physical to technical labor, as manufacturing jobs transition from physical assembly-line occupations to those tied to supporting automation and robotics, a strong STEM skill set will be of the utmost importance in the new economy.
Unfortunately, this skill set is exactly what our workforce lacks at the moment. In recent years, the skills gap has received much attention, and rightfully so. The Smithsonian Science Education Center has projected that 2.4 million STEM jobs have gone unfilled within our economy, highlighting a surplus of emerging jobs but a shortage in workers with the right skills to fill those positions.
Needless to say, this is a troubling development considering technological trends and one that would be devastating to American workers. Without a modernized workforce, our nation will not be as competitive or productive, putting overall economic growth and national prosperity at risk.
So how do we avoid this future and harness these technologies for the good of the economy and the workforce? Education and retraining will be key – and this will require some commonsense reforms.
Education reform: Building a foundation in STEM
The best way to expand the technical labor pool is to provide people entering the workforce with a strong STEM background. That ultimately starts with putting a higher emphasis on STEM education in K-12 schools and in encouraging students to pursue STEM degrees and careers.
The nation’s woes in the area of STEM education are well-documented. As noted by my colleague Dhaval Jadav in an article from The Hill, according to the Pew Research Center, in 2015 the U.S. placed 38th in math and 24th in science out of 71 other participating nations in the PISA, the largest cross-national test to measure reading ability as well as math and science literacy. Among the 35 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which sponsors the PISA initiative, the U.S. ranked 30th in math and 19th in science.
Clearly, these statistics illustrate that we’re not where we need to be in building a strong educational foundation in STEM. To ensure that the next generation of workers is not left behind in the emerging economy, the education system must be reformed to put STEM skills front and center.
A good place to start would be ensuring that every school in America offers foundational STEM courses such as computer science, chemistry, and algebra. As noted in a 2017 opinion piece in U.S. News & World Report, the emergence of so-called “STEM deserts” has greatly limited access to a good STEM education to students in urban and rural communities. Contributor Matthew Randazzo, CEO of the National Math and Science Initiative, wrote that “more than half of U.S. high schools do not offer calculus, 4 in 10 do not offer physics (and) more than 1 in 4 do not offer chemistry.” That will obviously need to change if we are to add more technical talent to the workforce.
Retaining programs and lifelong learning
In addition to providing the right skills to individuals who are just entering the workforce, there is much that can and needs to be done to ensure that those displaced by automation are able to remain employed in the emerging economy. For displaced workers from the hardest-hit sectors of the economy, public- and private-sector training and retraining programs can go a long way in maintaining a skilled technical workforce while ensuring better economic opportunities for displaced workers.
When we think of the education system in this country, there is a tendency to think just of primary and secondary education. In reality, technology is constantly evolving and requires workers to learn new skills to keep pace. As such, learning should be a lifelong experience, with public and privately funded programs to ensure workers always have the skills needed to be successful.
As businesses live in this world and know the skills that are needed to keep pace, it would make sense for the private sector to take the lead – but with some financial assistance from the government. To incentivize the creation of retraining programs for displaced workers (or the creation of internships and apprenticeships for those beginning their careers), a smart policy would be to entice those companies that are capable of training their workers with tax credits and incentives, thereby providing an extra benefit for those companies that are doing right by their workers and our economy at large.
Despite the prevailing narrative, automation can indeed be a force for good and empower economic opportunity in our nation – but this can only occur if we do our part and give workers the skills they need to harness and leverage the power of these new technologies.