About Work
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About Work

About Work — Introducing Ourselves

A Periodic Blog Moderated by Lia DiBello, Alan Lesgold, and Steve Reder

The world of work and our ideas, theories, and guesses about work in the future are in a constant state of change. We see large forces changing the fate of workers, but we do not understand fully exactly where work and the life of workers is headed nor what societal policies, corporate actions, or personal efforts will make workers’ lives better. While there is disagreement about the best strategies, enough people are under social, economic, and financial stress that government, companies, and individual workers feel the need to act — even as we are still puzzling out what actions will be most productive.

There already are many well-founded suggestions of needed changes. Indeed, we have written our own suggestions, too. But, change continues in the power of intelligent systems to augment or replace human work; in the concentration of wealth; in the effects of climate on people and their enterprises; in the level of work engagement people desire; in the relative roles of employers and workers in assuring health, retirement, and economic resilience for gig workers; in the skills for work imbued by our education system; in public understanding of what all is happening; in the organizational structure of enterprises; and in the capabilities of governments and private enterprises to change direction.

Our purpose in this periodic blog series is to stimulate respectful and critical discussion of emerging ideas that can help us all understand what is happening, what could happen that is good or bad, and how more good outcomes can be potentiated. Even the best ideas currently put forth will turn out not to be as completely and simply correct as we might have hoped or guessed. And, it is quite likely that a few ideas not yet on the table will allow for better results. We hope this blog series can help stimulate rigorous but adventurous discussion that leads to better lives for workers.

In curating this series, we assume that while the simplest actions are the most likely to be completed as planned, the overall situation is not simple. We expect to struggle to understand the implications of some ideas that writers in this series put forward, and we expect also eventually to dismiss some proposals as too complex to be implementable. We expect to see descriptions of local successes and to think hard about whether they can scale. Overall, we see improving the lot of workers as being as complex as keeping people healthy, running school systems, or countering global warming. In such situations, randomized controlled trials are not always possible, but hard thinking, attention to evidence-grounded theories, deeper understanding of how to confirm causality, and natural experiments certainly are. Overall, we hope that the ideas and discussion on this site will be rigorous, honest, civil, and especially tightly tied to real world situations and events.

We will begin with two or three blogs we ourselves are writing, but we also are actively recruiting contributions from other thinkers. Here are the first few pieces that we will be posting:

  • A description of a project that organized and trained workers in a factory to improve the business that employed them and save it from disappearing.
  • A discussion of the skills employers now seek in people they hire and how far these are removed from the skills on which the K-12 curriculum focuses, the skills society measures and uses to evaluate their schools, and the skills teachers possess and can pass on.
  • Challenges in helping current workers acquire skills now needed in the workplace.

And, here are some areas where we actively seek future contributions:

  • The relative dominance in jobs at large-scale hierarchical enterprises vs. decentralized and often smaller enterprises.
  • The skills needed for work in decentralized autonomous organizations and how those skills might be taught — to current workers and in our K-12 and university systems.
  • Policy changes needed to support energetic workers seeking to reskill and adapt to changes in work opportunities.
  • The role of technologies generally in supporting preparation for work and especially in adapting to patterns of reskilling that may involve online learning after hours, intense short-term courses, apprenticeships and related on-the-job learning, and other patterns of adaptation.
  • Needed changes in how community colleges and universities configure programs; select and, as needed, upgrade faculty teaching skills; cover the cost of instruction; and build on advice from employers and public bodies while maintaining their role in the formation of engaged and knowledgeable citizens.
  • How ubiquitous access to an overwhelming range of information sources interacts with worker decisions and actions in continually improving their marketable skills.
  • Assuring that upskilling opportunities serve a diverse population well and provide equitable access.
  • Implications of the shift from lifelong employment and accompanying employer-provided health insurance and retirement savings to a gig economy in which employer-employee relationships are much shorter and there are periods in which workers are unemployed and learning new skills and/or seeking new jobs.

We are open to other suggestions for future writing and will be working to develop avenues for wide-ranging and respectful discussion of ideas that are put forward here.

Preliminary Discussion

The fourth industrial revolution, combined with long-standing societal inequities, is creating a major challenge to our democracy and to world stability. On the one hand, workers accustomed to a decent middle-class existence have lost jobs or have been pushed into low-wage situations where they cannot support a family. The causes of this disruption are complex as are the possible paths to solutions. Intelligent automation is taking over some human roles, while the ubiquity of worldwide communications is allowing jobs to be shifted to whichever part of the world is willing to accept a lower wage than that paid currently to workers in richer countries. On the other hand, the same forces are creating new well-paying jobs that require skills not previously learned by those being displaced or who are unemployed or outside of the workforce.

While one group of workers, notably those in the middle of the US and other regions with a manufacturing history, are being pushed out of the middle class, another group, often people of color and immigrants, were never at that level in the first place and are suffering further as social stresses and greater competition for the remaining low-skill jobs increase. Much of the divide in our country comes from taking the viewpoint of one group while ignoring the views, privations, and perceptions of the other.

There are competing views about how our society should best respond to these challenges. We propose to engage a group of experts from relevant disciplines and roles to help us develop a set of key questions and possible solutions, (including but not limited to policy directions) for rebuilding the middle class and expanding it to serve previously marginalized groups. As we shape key issues, we will be writing or inviting brief essays that explain some of the complexity of the situation and sketch how improvements can be made.

Critically, this problem is not limited to the United States; we are seeing similar issues in other countries and cultures undergoing their own response to increased industrialization. Further, some countries struggle to develop a middle class where there is none. On the other hand, we are seeing some innovative, highly effective solutions across the globe. While these are still relatively isolated cases, we may learn a lot from studying them.

Causes

The main drivers of worker displacement and downgrading are the rapid advance of the information age and the globalization of our economy. Logistics are now possible (though, we have discovered, sometimes precarious in the face of disruptive events) that permit work to be outsourced around the world, often to places with much lower wage structures than at U.S. firms. Robotics advances have eliminated many manufacturing jobs. Artificial intelligence is rapidly allowing routine human cognitive work to be displaced by machine intelligence, and in some cases, especially involving pattern recognition and diagnosis, machine intelligence can exceed human capability.

These changes also have enabled whole new business areas, but many decent jobs go unfilled because workers lack the new skill sets needed to fill them. Some believe that government should offer a lot of free training. Others believe that companies can learn to do this themselves, perhaps with certain kinds of support. The same advances that permit effective offshoring logistics also have dramatically increased the velocity of money and commerce, allowing traditional market indices to keep rising and wealthy investors to get wealthier, even as more adult workers who would have had decent lives prior to the fourth industrial revolution end up in poverty and economic uncertainty.

An important factor is the failure over multiple decades of public education to prepare students with the cognitive, social, and personal skills needed to get the newly emerging jobs. Also relevant in a free-market economy is that the ability for companies to shop worldwide for workers can drive down the wages and benefits formerly provided for jobs requiring less formal training. Most workers will face the challenges of navigating multiple job and career changes over their lifetimes, with each transition often requiring the acquisition of new skills and knowledge. Workers are well aware of the lifelong learning that such transitions demand: the 2016 Pew Research Center survey, “The State of American Jobs,” reported that 87% of workers believe it will be essential for them to get training and develop new job skills throughout their work life to keep up with changes in the workplace.

Some Insights about people and technology

While there are “skills gaps,” we can see from the way they integrate advanced technology into their lives that people of all ages spontaneously reskill themselves and learn when technology enables advancement, efficiency, or improvements in living. Despite predictions to the contrary in the 1990’s, laptops and personal computers have become very popular personal possessions and most people have internet access in their homes. Today, when five-year-olds heat up meals in a microwave oven, we forget that when first on sale, people would only buy them if free classes were included on how to use them. People have managed to learn complex devices such as smartphones without any special computer training or education. This happens any time the use of a technology is enculturated within a community, and it can happen within the communities of workers in a company or trade just as it happens when teens enculturate a new video game. The significance of both this capability and this self-initiative has gone largely unrecognized by most employers, but not by consumer electronics manufacturers, who build their marketing around it with try-and-buy approaches.

Company and Educational Responses

Some companies are getting the idea. When companies offer transparent ways for workers to see how they could advance their careers and earn more money through adding technical skills to their repertoire, these firms see that workers will take advantage of opportunities to reskill and then get better jobs. While this is designed into work cultures at high end technology companies, it also happens in mass employment companies like Amazon and Walmart. It is a win-win for companies and workers. Employers have already spent considerably on training workers in the specifics of their business and would rather keep workers who add to their skills, because replacing them is expensive and sometimes impossible. Upskilled workers are rewarded with stability and upward mobility in their current company while at the same time broadening their opportunities should they choose to leave.

Colleges — particularly community colleges are learning from this model as well — by implementing transparency in “guidance” toward completion, showing students which careers are available to them with what courses, how long they take to complete, what they cost, and what earnings are possible with the added knowledge and skill. The motivation for colleges is to increase their enrollment and completion rates, but the result for students is greater employment opportunities. The continued growth of the college-educated workforce, however, requires that older and nontraditional students are incentivized and supported to resume their education long after they may have left school. A variety of “on-ramp” supports may be required to enroll these students and assure their successful completion.

Policy Responses

With millions of Americans expected to move in and out of employment and poverty in coming years, accompanied by frequent job and career changes, there is a need for policy responses as well. Policy analysts, stakeholders and advocates are considering a range of policy innovations. Lifelong learning is increasingly recognized as a necessity by employers and workers alike. Just as medical records are digitized to move with the individual across jobs, life circumstances, and service providers, so too should learning goals, plans and records be portable and move with the individual. Innovations such as individual learning accounts, to which public, company, and worker contributions are made, are being devised to facilitate and support lifelong learning and more active self-management of learning.

The theme here is that people do better when they are agents of their own learning and advancement. Certainly, there are issues preventing people from assuming this role in their learning, such as family obligations, lack of transportation, lack of information, and other social constraints. Policies and government assistance that address these issues can help, just as they have targeted some of the disparities in the delivery of healthcare. In community colleges, this has already become part of the “guidance” process toward completion, with many resources devoted to identifying and addressing social issues that prevent attending and completing educational opportunities.

Many of our colleagues are researching and writing about these issues, and some have proposed and explored solutions. In the essays and other writings we plan to develop and curate, we will focus on issues of policy, relevant data, and useful approaches to supporting workers to be effective agents of their own career development and in preparing for or recovering from the job displacements inevitable amidst the volatility of the fourth industrial age and its persistent economic and social inequities and disruptions.

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Policy, data, and useful ways to support workers to be effective agents of their own careers and to prepare for or recover from job displacements amidst the volatility of the fourth industrial age and its persistent economic and social inequities and disruptions.

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Alan Lesgold

Alan Lesgold

Emeritus professor of education, psychology, and intelligent systems and former education dean at University of Pittsburgh.

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