MIT Forum Examines Future Workers, Shared Prosperity

We need to integrate technology and human literacy — and that will require life-long learning of all types

By Paula Klein

Relevant, robust, and ample skills training, top most experts’ lists of future workforce requirements. But who will provide it, who receives it, and what form should it take? The answers represent some of the many challenges that need to be addressed by the private and public sectors, as well as academia.

At the AI and Future of Work Congress, held November 8 at MIT, spirited discussions centered on how to correct current ills and build a strong foundation for digital economy workers. Several academic leaders assumed responsibility for training next-generation workers, but their agendas go far beyond coding and tech skills. Northeastern University President, Joseph Aoun, spoke broadly about Preparing Learners to Succeed in the AI Age.

Author of a new book, Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, Aoun favors literacy of all types to prepare workers for the curve balls that will surely be thrown at them during their careers. In fact, he sees the need for ongoing, life-long learning in most fields. “Existing models haven’t adapted to the global economy. Education is a very conservative sector and we don’t want to change our own models.”

Northeastern President Joseph Aoun says education has to adapt to the global economy.

Aoun advocates “humanics,” the bridging of technological literacy and human literacy to prepare students for labor markets where machines and humans interact. Then, they need to take these lessons into the real world. The most important skills to develop include judgment, collaboration, curiosity, communication, empathy, team work, leadership and many others and that requires “a K-to-gray,” life-long learning process, he said.

In her keynote address, Massachusetts’ Labor Secretary, Rosalin Acosta, agreed: Soft skills, interdisciplinary understanding, vocational training, multiculturalism, and real-world job training all must be offered at the state-level, too.

Massachusetts Labor Secretary, Rosalin Acosta
“The days are gone when learning ended with college.” We don’t know exactly what will be required, but we know that what got us here won’t get us there, she said.

The Need for Speed

Diana Farrell, President and CEO, JPMorgan Chase Institute expressed an urgency for action. “We can’t wait for the next generation to be educated; we need to change systems today.” Fully 42% of Americans earn less than $16 per hour. “There are jobs, people are working, but they are not well-paid jobs or jobs with growth potential,” and career paths, she said. Disruption is happening at a much higher rate than new job creation. “There is social upheaval; left alone, markets will not create equality.”

Businesses are stepping forward with initiatives that serve workers as well as their own talent shortages. Walmart, For example, is up-skilling retail workers and also creating a management pipeline. With two million employees, Becky Schmitt, Senior VP of Global People, said the Walmart Academy trains and promotes workers “from hourly work to careers.” Seventy-five percent of its managers started that way, she said. They have access to the latest technology, such as virtual reality simulators, that teach them what to do in real-world situations.

Panel moderator, CSAIL Managing Director, Lori Glover, (at left) listens to Walmart’s Becky Schmitt (center), along with Accenture Managing Director, Allison Horn. PHOTO: Rachel Gordon

Nevertheless, “we can’t rely on business alone,” to offer and pay for all the necessary job training, said Daniela Rus, Director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), which co-sponsored the event. There have to be partnerships between government and universities so that “untapped potential will lift us all.”

Fair wages, inclusion, and high productivity are goals for future workers, too. Fred Goff, CEO of Jobcase, faults many corporations with pursuing shareholder value at the expense of workers. Contract workers are increasingly common, he said, yet they are left out when it comes to training and skills development. Technology “tools are out there, but you’re on your own to learn them.”

Gustavo Pierini, President of Gradus Management Consultants in Brazil, agreed that corporations are not pulling their weight just yet. “Unions used to train people in new markets. Now, universities have to fill that role.” The training problem “won’t solve itself.”

“We have to consider technology’s implications from the start, we can’t just hope for the best.”

Matching Jobs, Skills, and Opportunities Around the Globe

The low U.S. unemployment figures belie deeper concerns, according to several economists, and too many jobs require skills that people aren’t trained to do. Maria Flynn, President and CEO of Jobs for the Future, said that 85 million U. S. workers are under-educated and untrained for today’s jobs. “The national unemployment rate glosses over real issues and misses those without advancement opportunities,” she said. As disruption accelerates, they are left even further behind.

Secretary Acosta noted similar trends in Massachusetts. Despite the fact that the economy is strong and the state has one of the best educated workforces in the country, jobs go unfilled. “The statistics don’t reflect underemployment and the aging workforce,” she said. About 354,000 people work in retail and hospitality for median wages of $27,000 annually. The future of work requires re-skilling in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). “We need to do a better job matching skills to opportunities.”

Many speakers tackled the thorny issue of global economic inequality. Erik Brynjolfsson, Director of the MIT IDE, in a conversation with Eric Schmidt, Technical Adviser, Alphabet Inc., said that a while technology can raise people out of poverty, more inequality is also emerging.

“Let’s remember that most of world doesn’t work full time. In the developing world, there is low literacy and therefore, poor digital literacy,” Tina George, co-lead, Social Protection and Jobs Global Practice, at the World Bank, reminded attendees.

“Informal workers, as in India and Africa, pose the greatest challenge. How do we support people in remote and isolated areas? How do we shift gears and mindsets? We can’t build Starwars with Flintstone technology.”

Global entrepreneurs competing in the Inclusive Innovation Challenge, a flagship initiative of the MIT IDE, work to solve digital literacy problems every day. The same night as the conference, the IIC named four grand-prize winners of $250,000 each. The finalists all use technology to increase economic opportunity for working people around the globe. (For a description of five finalists, see related story here, and all the finalists can be found here.)

Additional highlights from the conference included these four action items:

  • Fix the tax system. Daron Acemoglu, MIT Economics Professor, noted the “disappointing concentration of wealth in the U.S. labor market today.” High school graduates earn 35% less now than in previous generations. “We’re not using tech tools to spur productivity growth and new job creation.” He suggests fixing the tax system, which now favors capital investments over labor. Additionally, government has to provide more resources.
  • Make inclusion a reality. During a panel on Ensuring Prosperity in the Digital Age, Rodney Sampson, CEO of Opportunity Hub, told attendees that while inclusivity is critical, it “has to be more than just a buzzword.”
  • Share the wealth. Tina George of the World Bank said, “We have to find delivery systems for people in the informal sector.” In Ghana, for instance, micro-savings programs are linking people to portable banks. “Social protection is very important.”
  • Think long term. James Tracy, President of Woodrow Wilson Academy of Teaching and Learning, added that quick fixes and code training alone are “setting students up for failure in the long term.” The pace of change is too fast for simplistic retraining efforts that aim only for short-term returns. (Read more about the Academy here.)