Upskilling America to Restore Global Competitiveness

It’s no secret that the American labor force — and by extension, society as a whole — is splitting into two camps: a relatively small number of highly educated professionals earning good wages, and large numbers of less educated workers, with fewer skills, who work for low wages. Technology-powered automation is a major cause of this dichotomy. We need to turn our notion of technology on its head — from a tool used to get rid of workers to one that works well with people, and is focused on their cognitive enrichment, so they can up their skills for a sustainable future in a high-tech world.

The growing chasm between the have-skills and the haven’t-skills is most pronounced in the disparity between urban-tech enclaves and rural communities, many of which have lost connectivity with the global technological world. Large numbers of their high-school graduates are not technically prepared for the emerging manufacturing sectors and a tech-driven economy; this misalignment of skills forces these workers to work for low wages even in a full-employment economy. Technical and vocational institutions are trying to fill the gap, but are not fully aligned with the marketplace. This segment of the population is not being served well — higher education, government and business have mostly left these workers behind.

A Problem with a History

Most people consider this a recent phenomenon, but the deskilling of the American workforce has been happening for over a century. In 1911, in a quest for efficiency and increased industrial output, Frederick Winslow Taylor, a Philadelphia machinist and then mechanical engineer and consultant, introduced the principles of so-called “scientific management,” which decoupled thinking from doing. The Ford Motor Company assembly line took the tenets to heart, separating the cognitive and creative aspects of manual work from its physical execution. Education followed suit: White-collar work was associated with a pedagogic focus on the mental and abstract, while blue-collar work became more perfunctory. This philosophy has separated education into distinct categories of classroom and hands-on instruction.

The result has become predictable. For example, at Amazon warehouses, the company has eliminated many steps for its bin workers that involve thinking, such as no longer needing to remember the bin location, or what objects to place in the containers. People are in essence working like robots, with a “steady stripping of human judgment,” according to the New York Times in a July 3, 2019 article.

Make Technology Work for Us

We need to turn this idea of technology upside-down: Instead of using it to take away our minds, use advanced technology to strengthen and upskill workers. For example, augmented and virtual reality can help teach the workforce new skills, and become more flexible and versatile in the face of changing needs. Online self-learning portals let students and workers access and shape their own training to find the resources they need to self-educate and upskill. We also need to establish a countrywide network that combines secondary education, economic development, rural schools and technical colleges, so they can better serve, in particular, small and medium-size industries through workforce development.

At the same time, we need machines that can be operated more easily by humans. Design tools need to be made more accessible and simpler to use. Technical, shop-like facilities need to be available at scale — across the country, ideally supported by federal subsidies — so we can bring into being a more pervasive entrepreneurial ecosystem for workers to develop their competitive edge and make the new products of the coming decades. We need open-source platforms for robotic software and hardware, so it’s easier for anyone to make robots, leading to more companies building them themselves because they can program them more intuitively, without scientists or engineers.

It’s a simultaneous thrust: teach the workforce in the ways of more complex technology, while at the same time making technology simpler and easier to access, learn and use. If we can do this, both design and manufacturing will thrive in America, increasing worker productivity while closing the skills gap.

This is what will help our working class and our rural communities reconnect with the world, attract capital and economic opportunity, and restore their lives and towns — and in so doing, in bridging the gap between the have-skills and the haven’t-skills, perhaps bring our society closer together as well.

by Karthik Ramani, Donald W. Feddersen Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering (by courtesy), Professor of Educational Studies, College of Education (by courtesy)



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Karthik Ramani

Karthik Ramani

Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Purdue University