Automation is expected to radically change the makeup of the U.S. workforce, and experts say Washington state should help the next generation of workers prepare accordingly. Several ideas on how the state legislature can do that were outlined at an Oct. 23 work session of the House Technology and Economic Development Committee, including further investment in K-12 to make computer science available to more students.
According to a study by research firm Forrester, 16 percent of U.S. jobs will be replaced by automation by 2025, primarily affecting office and administrative support staff jobs. At the same time, the study estimates 8.9 million new jobs will be created within the same timeframe, including robot monitors, data scientists and automation specialists. Already, the Brookings Institute found that between 2002-2016, high digital jobs grew from three percent to 22 percent of total employment.
Another study by professional services network PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that 35 percent of the U.S. workforce will be automated in 15 years.
Ed Lazowska is the Bill and Melinda Gates Chair of the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington. During the work session he told lawmakers that “what we see is digital jobs are growing, nondigital jobs are shrinking. It’s happening rapidly.”
At the same time, the workforce skills gap is expected to grow. The shift in job creation means what educators teach students – advanced digital skills – is becoming more critical than how they teach, Lazowska said.
Opportunity Washington has noted that by 2020, 70 percent of Washington jobs will require postsecondary training or education. Among its recommendation is to direct more high school and college students toward science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.
One of the recommendations of the Brookings Institute study was that “states and regions must work urgently with industry to expand their local pools of high-quality IT talent, knowing that the digitalization of everything will continue to expand the need for well-prepared technical talent, not just in IT-producing industries, but throughout the economy. For years to come, this type of employment will be a source of well-paying jobs that will facilitate the digitalization of local firms and benefit regional prosperity. There is no option for workers, industries, and places except to immerse in digitalization.”
Lazowska told panel members that the state can start by creating a K-12 computer science plan and expanding student access to that curriculum at secondary schools. He added that last year, only 135 secondary schools offered AP computer science, which was less than a third of the schools that had AP programs.
“We could choose to lead,” he said. “Digital jobs are not just jobs in the tech industry.”
Lazowska recommended that the state require all schools to offer computer science, with appropriate implementation timelines, while increasing funding for teacher development in that area.
However, several panel members noted that the workforce transition will also affect existing workers. Rep. Vandana Slatter (D-48) asked: “how are we looking at jobs that are maybe 30 percent digital versus 100 percent? How does this industry work on that transition as people are changing from no digital to fully (digital)? Can we partner with industry to help us with that?”
A similar concern was voiced by Rep. Sharon Wylie (D-49), who noted that while current students may grow up learning computer science, many current workers may not.
Lazowska said apprenticeship programs can provide effective retraining for those workers. “Individuals can be brought up to speed to these sort-of-near-digital jobs.”