The New Baseline: Special Skills

Worker justice or workforce development?

The Minimum Wage, And Machines
Machines are replacing workers in grocery stores, fast-food restaurants and elsewhere. Photo:

Political and policy activism on labor conditions for low-wage hourly workers is on the rise. Yet the growing emphasis on upstream tweaks may overshadow key inflection points in pre-K, K-12 and post-secondary education. At times it appears any such debate is being subsumed by the here and now.

    • A proposed Seattle ballot measure advanced by worker groups might raise taxes from employers for the city to do more investigations of hourly-wage worker grievances on pay, leave, and scheduling.
    • Seattle has already enacted several other workplace mandates and later this year will adopt new scheduling regulations likely to financially penalize employers for short-notice changes in hourly-worker shifts.
    • Seattle and SeaTac have passed their own local minimum wage laws. A statewide ballot measure this fall will let voters decide whether to raise the minimum wage to $13.50 by 2020. There are diverse views on that within the business community.

Do New Mandates On Employers Miss The Point?

However, as campaigns ratchet up for a growing number of employer mandates in Washington state and across the U.S., trends in workforce development and workplace technology are tilting the playing field even further away from unskilled hourly workers who would benefit. They wait on tables, draw lattes, or flip burgers.

Growing indications are that the future belongs to workers with more specialized or advanced skills. They are less dependent on interventionist policy because they do things machines cannot.

They include data analysts; marine, mechanical and electrical engineers; home health care workers; plus electricians and others in the construction trades.

Some Workers Should Start Making Other Plans

Jobs on the way out thanks to robotics, software or the Internet include some that are at or near minimum wage; but also others that pay better.

Fast-food workers, cashiers and telemarketers should start making other plans, but so too should bank tellers, data entry associates, warehouse employees, and travel agents.

Even Uber drivers may have a limited shelf life.

Workers higher up the food chain are less prone to displacement but will see some of their duties shifted to automation to control costs. They’ll have to be even more demonstrably outstanding at doing what’s left: planning, analyzing, strategizing and managing.

‘Doctors, Hedge-Fund Managers, CEOs’ Not Immune

Citing research from McKinsey and Company, the Washington Post reported one-third or more of work could become automated for 60 percent of U.S. jobs and that this includes not only low-paid workers but also “doctors, hedge fund managers and CEOs.”

Explains the Post:

“Mortgage-loan officers might spend more time advising clients processing loans and reviewing exceptions, rather than doing inspections and filling out rote paperwork. Emergency room doctors might spend more time on the most serious or unusual cases, while robots do the triage and diagnose routine illnesses.”

For years, manufacturing sector jobs have been a haven for less-educated and sometimes modestly-skilled workers to earn a family wage. But as in the low-wage and white collar sectors, change is afoot here too. The Congressional Research Service reports:

“A steadily smaller proportion of manufacturing workers is involved in physical production processes, while larger shares are engaged in managerial and professional work. These changes are reflected in increasing skill requirements for manufacturing workers and severely diminished opportunities for workers without education beyond high school.”

Invest In Human Capital

Writes the Director of MIT’s Center For Digital Business Erik Byrnjolfsson in an essay titled Race Against The Machine, “Technological progress does not automatically benefit everyone in a society,” and “organizational innovation, orchestrated by entrepreneurs” necessitates “investments in the complementary human capital.”

Objective indicators suggest that more of that investment needs to occur in Washington state. According to 2013 research from the Washington Roundtable, the state:

      • ranked 47th in total fall higher ed enrollment as a percentage of population;
      • 38th in bachelor’s degrees per capita;
      • 36th in science and engineering doctorates per capita;
      • 33rd in Science, Technology, Engineering or Math (STEM) bachelor’s degrees per capita.

The Roundtable report, cited by its Opportunity Washington initiative, notes the job skills gap in the state will reach 50,000 persistently unfilled jobs by next year. Being able to fill the positions means the state would gain an additional 160,000 spin-off jobs, plus $720 million more in state taxes and $80 million more in local taxes each year.

K-12 Transformation Is Crucial

This sets the table for K-12 reforms in Washington state that finally deliver more graduates who are better prepared for career and technical education, and higher education.

More Equitable and Stable Funding For K-12 Basic Education

Considered Item One on education in Washington is the work of a new legislative task force charged with developing recommendations for the 2017-2019 biennial budget on how much teachers should be paid in each of the state’s K-12 public school districts. Driving this work is the State Supreme Court’s McCleary case ruling in 2012. One of the goals for lawmakers is more equitable and stable funding for all districts that relies less on local levies and more on the state. Districts’ local revenue streams can vary greatly based on local property tax values and rates.

Data Gap On Local Basic Ed Spending

But the devil resides in the details. Despite the high court’s assertions, it’s murky what proportion of basic ed is actually covered by local districts. The Washington State Institute of Public Policy (WSIPP) just this week reported to the task force on hiring a consultant to unearth the data.

As well, there are the questions of exactly what types of taxpayer expenditures deliver the best achievement outcomes, and a largely-sidelined matter: the crucial role of parents in early childhood education and development of learning capacity.

Teacher Training Standards Need Work

More capable high schools grads ready for the increasingly demanding world of work also need better prepared teachers. A 50-state survey by the National Council on Teacher Quality suggests Washington state needs to fix
poor teacher training standards.

More choice and competition in K-12 education is another priority for a growing and bi-partisan group of state lawmakers and other stakeholders. They say the controversy over charter schools in Washington is counterproductive, and charters should be allowed to flourish free of political and legal gamesmanship.

Word Power

Finally, parents can help ensure that from the pre-K years onward, their children are on a pathway to academic and career success. By talking. A lot.

The Washington Post has reported on research showing that “children in poor families are spoken to less often” and by age three may have heard 30 million fewer cumulative words than counterparts from higher-income households. Regardless of income or education, the Post reports that experts say parents can use their dialect with greater intentionality to create a “dense world of words” for their children that engenders a love of learning and boosts the odds of success.


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