Future of work in an automated world

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Workforce researchers say the state and business sector should revamp its retraining efforts and better prepare employees for the further implementation of technology in the workplace. Photo: SounderBruce.

Members of Washington’s Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board (WTB) are recommending to the legislature that the state and its businesses should refocus efforts on preparing workers for the future of increased automation and prevent skilled workers from losing their jobs in order to remain competitive.

The recommendations, given during the Senate Economic Development & International Trade Committee’s last meeting this biennium, include to the need to better collaborate among businesses, workers and the public sector when implementing policy about the changing workplace, as well as for the business community to take a greater role in retraining workers to handle jobs created by new technologies.

Lewis McMurran, Future of Work Policy and Research Manager at WTB, told lawmakers that the state needs to prepare for artificial intelligence (AI) being integrated into more businesses, which may be disruptive to a variety of workers.

“We certainly don’t want those robots kicking us out of our jobs…at the same time we will also see a new level of jobs being needed—who is going to program the robots, who is going to fix them,” adding that although autonomous cars will no longer need traditional drivers, they will still require some form of human operator.

“It’s going to change a lot, but the key is that we are going to have to have a new mindset and skill sets to manage it all,” he said.

WTB recommends that lawmakers consider three areas of focus for policy regarding the future of work: supporting workers, partnering with businesses and helping the public sector modernize.

The existing workforce is most at risk of having jobs replaced by automation, according to McMurran, adding that the state should focus on reskilling, upskilling and retraining to counteract the threat.

“None of us have linear career paths anymore…It’s a rethinking of how we manage ourselves and manage our careers,” he said.

Also to consider is the rise of independent contracting and nontraditional work, and ensuring those people have a safety net as they may not have access to the same benefits as traditional workers.

“Businesses need to innovate, be more productive, adopt modern technology to compete but also need to devote more to people development,” said McMurran. “Internships and collaboration are key there.”

The public sector needs to ensure that the workforce development system undergoes constant improvement and revamping, he added, along with reengaging younger workers, especially considering the need for information technology (IT) and cloud storage skills.

State Sen. Lisa Wellman (D-41) said the state has been examining what will happen with technology as it becomes more integrated in the workplace and is concerned that businesses have structured themselves around the importance of quarterly returns.

“What that really says to me is that business is not looking that far ahead and making those long-term investments which are really needed.

“Secondly, I don’t see much business stepping up to retrain and reskill their current employees…we are certainly looking at career-connected learning” in the legislature, “but I need to see where business is stepping up to take responsibility,” she said.

Joe Wilcox, Future of Work Policy and Research Manager at WTB said the board has observed traditionally lower investment levels and capital expenditures in workers over the years. The burden of retraining has shifted off businesses and their training programs onto academic institutions, he said, adding that a worker will not stay will not spend an entire career at one job, making businesses less incentivized to retrain people.

“Those are the key components of the disconnect with reskilling, because it needs to be a collaborative effort we feel for business, labor and the government to work together and create a system where it is beneficial for all parties involved.”



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