West Stringfellow
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West Stringfellow

Here comes automation, there goes jobs. AKA: Why aren’t people freaking out about automation?

Among the many horrors we face daily, included but not limited to: nuclear annihilation, environmental collapse, an increasingly economically divided society paired with an increasingly polarized and paranoid political rhetoric; please add to your list the inevitable replacement of your job with software or robots. See the full chart, with links, at the MIT Technology Review.

Retraining doesn’t work

What’s terrifying about this chart is that job retraining doesn’t work. Take a look at Ronald Reagan’s job retraining policy in 1982: The Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA.) Despite $3 billion in yearly spending over 14 years, the results were lackluster. The program wasn’t necessarily bad. There are just many confounding factors. According to The Atlantic, there are three reasons these programs tend to fail.

“One, those who need the training typically don’t know about — or are excluded from — them. Two, course material tends to be disjointed from the needs of employers. Three, and perhaps most importantly, job-training programs don’t force employers to pay skilled people decent wages.”

There have been multiple programs since the JTPA and they have all exhibited similar results. The groups in need of the most help, blue-collar workers and young people, tend to be underserved by these programs. The World Bank found that “Only 30 percent of [youth employment] programs in our database were successful; the majority had no positive effect or the effect was most likely the result of chance. Moreover, among the successful programs the effect size was often small.“

Real opportunities require relocation

Even a perfectly designed training and education program won’t solve a core issue behind unemployment — many job opportunities require relocation.

Rural counties are going to be hit by automation. Hard. These communities, already struggling economically, are most vulnerable to job loss. Ball State University conducted a study that found automation has a “disproportionately harsh impact on poorer, rural communities” and that “Big urban centers with a broad mix of jobs are poised to weather the labor market storm better than small rural communities.” These urban areas are experience job growth and wage increases, a trend that will likely accelerate in the years to come.

Economic Research Service, USDA, 2017

People don’t prepare for futures. They react to realities.

All of this — the job training, the relocation — means nothing if vulnerable workers don’t acknowledge the threat of automation. It seems like everyone understands these realities, right? The data points to different conclusions. According to Pew Research, 80% of workers expect their jobs to exist in 50 years. A report from Randstad found that “76% of US workers do not fear that their job will be replaced by a machine.” The economy has rebounded from waves of automation in the past but the speed of software and lack of preparedness may make this a more difficult transition than we have ever seen.

My $0.02:

Automation is about more than eliminating jobs, it’s about eliminating opportunity. There is no real freedom without equal opportunity. Automation attacks the foundation of our very society by accelerating the mechanisms that have resulted in wealth disparity and inequality. Consequently, we are pushing society towards a situation wherein a majority of the population experiences relative deprivation: the lack of an individual’s resources relative to society as a whole. This is the phenomenon responsible for the populist movements we’re seeing across the globe.

The solution is not about more job training, it’s about shifting our foundational culture and creating institutions that pull together communities, families, employers, educators, workforce centers, state government, and others to help job seekers and and the emerging workforce (aka: our children) prepare for the coming industrial revolution. We need to drive the change, rather than suffer through unplanned consequences which are often negative and challenge the very underpinnings of our society: equality, freedom, democracy, peace and the American Dream.

What do you think? What should we be doing to prepare people for this transition?

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