Debate Prep: When Trump Says “Jobs” Think Algorithms, Not Immigrants
Algorithms, Not Immigrants and Trade Deals, Are Setting the Pace to the Future of Work
Co-Authored By Chris Shipley
Ahead of what is expected to be the most watched presidential debate in modern history, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump repeats his usual campaign stump speech, setting up foreigners as the whipping boy for America’s jobs woes. In the rust belt towns of Ohio and Pennsylvania, he parried from his usual positions on immigration to focus on jobs. “It’s all about jobs,” Trump says. “It’s really now so much talking about jobs because our country has been destroyed by other countries taking our jobs.”
That’s the sort of line that evokes images of an anthropomorphized state sneaking into the United States under cover of night, packing crates full of jobs onto cargo planes, and shipping them off to some unfamiliar land where they will toil in darkness until the bold politician sends a rescue mission to liberate and “bring them home.” It makes for stirring campaign rhetoric, particularly to the un- and under-employed voter. Unfortunately, it is a tug of war with the past.
It is an empty promise, exactly because it is completely wrong.
Jobs “left” America for three interconnected reasons: Atomization, Automation, and the Corporate Profit Imperative. Ultimately, it is about the algorithms, not the immigrants.
The issues entangling jobs are a complex web of policy, economy, technology, and culture, to be sure, but these three factors put a frame around them to help us understand what has happened, and why, and what we might do to go beyond campaign speeches to address the jobs problem.
Today, the tasks of many jobs — particularly those at an entry level, but increasingly those in the professions — can be broken into separate, discrete pieces. This is the atomization of work. Once a job has been atomized and the routine and predictable components digitized, the atomic parts of a job can be parceled out to a global workforce willing to complete a task at the lowest cost.
As those tasks become more certain and their outcomes clearly defined, they will be augmented in whole or in part by computerized labor. The robots that supported and often supplanted factory workers last century are moving into the professional ranks, where computer algorithms analyze reams of data far faster than human workers. Most certainly, virtually every job will be computer aided in the not so distant future. This is the automation of work and it will continue on this course until, ultimately, most tasks are captured in algorithms that execute jobs faster, more predictably, and more efficiently than even the lowest-cost human worker. Algorithms augment until they replace many human tasks and skills. This is how atomization and augmentation of work are interconnecting and amplifying the transformation of work.
These two factors might have put jobs on a steady linear course, the inevitable march of progress, were it not for a third driving factor: the Corporate Profit Imperative, what Jack Welch finally called “the dumbest idea in the world,” as Steve Denning explains here. Over the last quarter century, the purpose of the company has changed from one that aggregated work effort in order to optimize productivity and create value for customers to one that aggregates profitability in order to create value for shareholders. The corporate workforce changed from an asset to develop to a cost to contain as companies successfully create more and more financial value with fewer and fewer humans. While not the only contributing factor, this fundamental shift helped quadrupled the market value of U.S. companies over the past 25 years, as measured by growth in the Dow Jones Industrial Average from 1990 to 2015. In that same period, the U.S. labor force has been virtually stagnant. Further, according to Pew Research, during this period, we lost 6% of the middle class and added 5% to the highest income bracket and 2% to the poorest bracket.
Taken together, it becomes easy to see that the real villain in the sorry U.S. jobs story is Trump himself and business people like him who put corporate profit above an American workforce that offers security and prosperity to all. Look no further than Trump’s made-in-China clothing line for evidence of profit before people.
For Candidate Trump, however, faceless foreigners and scary governments make a much more palatable story than those true tales set in boardrooms where corporate cronies make decisions to outsource and downsize to maintain quarter-to-quarter profits.
Trump isn’t alone in painting an over-simplistic American Jobs story. Indeed, many politicians on both sides of the aisle are trying to drive to the future using a rear-view mirror as their guide. But Trump is particularly wrong to focus on immigration and renegotiated trade deals as the solution to our jobs problem. Case in point: Research by the Kauffman Ffoundation revealed the majority of net new jobs come from corporations five years or younger and it is unlikely that these are the jobs being outsourced to lower cost providers, or impacted by international trade alliances.
We are in the midst of the greatest velocity of change in human history, driven by an array of technology, social and business factors that most significantly affect work. The jobs of the past are not coming back, and we dare say we don’t want them to. New jobs, uniquely human jobs, are our future. The Future is Learning.
We can best prepare for this future not by building walls or deporting undocumented workers or risking international relationships by scraping trade deals, but by creating education and labor policy that emphasizes life-long and agile learning so that all workers are prepared to thrive in the future of work. In this recent piece in the Brookings Institute, we propose a shift and complete overhaul of all education systems from transferring existing knowledge and predetermined skills to a focus on design learning (The graphic/visual version of the piece can be found here).
We need to drop the rope to our tug of war with the past and pick up a hammer to start building a bridge to the future because soon an algorithm, not an immigrant, will do all work that is either mentally routine or predictable. We need to rethink our education system and our workforce to get back to doing what originally made America great — entrepreneurial agile thinking to create new value.
Heather McGowan and Chris Shipley write, speak, and consult with education and corporate clients on the future of work. They are currently writing a book on the topic. You can learn more about their work at www.futureislearning.com