Taking Action

Technological Disruption Creates Jobs…Good Ones!

Helping workers take advantage of the new jobs that technology will create

“Every once in a while, a new technology, an old problem,
and a big idea turn into an innovation.” —Dean Kamen

Guest editorial:
Alastair Fitzpayne & Joe Speicher

Alastair Fitzpayne, executive director Aspen Institute Future of Work Initiative
Joe Speicher executive director Autodesk Foundation

Technology Is Not Destiny
Today, we see robots shuttling pallets around warehouses, voice assistants operating fast food drive-through lanes, and algorithms analyzing medical records and diagnosing patients. It seems that everywhere you turn, automation is demonstrating the potential to upend the labor market, reducing the need for human labor. New technologies, particularly artificial intelligence, advanced robotics, and machine learning, may represent a tipping point, leading to faster and broader change than in the past.

A common view is that these changes might lead to the elimination of millions of jobs, while vastly changing others — requiring workers to retrain, or switch occupations or industries.

The impacts could be significant. McKinsey estimates that up to 33 percent of workers may need to transition to entirely different occupations by 2030. The most susceptible jobs are characterized by repetitive, predictable activities, like operating machinery, preparing fast food, or collecting and processing data. Low-wage occupations appear to be most at risk, leaving our most vulnerable workers in danger of falling further behind. 

While technological change presents challenges, it also offers opportunities to improve the quality of work and address the major challenges facing society today.

Historically, automation’s overall impact on the economy has led to more growth, more jobs and higher living standards. Today, automation of routine and repetitive tasks can improve dangerous and undesirable jobs, giving workers the opportunity to earn more — and engage in more rewarding work.

“For example, David Autor and Anna Salomons found that the net effects of total factor productivity growth, of which automation is a significant component, amounted to an 18 percent increase in overall employment from 1970 through 2007.

“As another  example, the McKinsey Global Institute found that personal computers created nearly 16 million new jobs in the U.S. since 1970, despite displacing nearly 4 million jobs. Demand for typists, accountants, and secretaries declined due to word-processing and accounting software. But these declines were more than offset by new jobs in computer manufacturing and supplier industries, computer science and information technology, and e-commerce.”

In addition, at a time when global population growth is booming, many communities increasingly need affordable housing and better infrastructure. Technological innovations like robotics and data analytics can significantly increase capacity, improve productivity and ultimately help us meet these challenges.”

But technology is not destiny. The impact of innovation is mediated by our policies and institutions, and we are facing a pivotal moment.

To leverage the opportunity and overcome the challenges requires action from policymakers in federal, state and local governments, as well as from employers, worker organizations, education and training providers, civil society organizations and community leaders. We need all hands on deck.

We must choose to create an economy that helps workers take advantage of the new jobs that technology will create; one that helps workers transition back to stable work if they lose their job, and that broadly shares the gains of technology for all.

These goals are achievable, but the policy structures currently in place are outdated and inadequate. We can’t rely on education and training systems built for the 20th century. Nor can we depend on a safety net designed for a stable workforce to weather 21st century disruption. We must modernize our systems and institutions to reflect the realities of a rapidly evolving economy.

The Autodesk Foundation believes that improving our understanding of the opportunities and challenges of automation is critical to building a resilient 21st century economy. With that goal, the foundation supported work by The Aspen Institute Future of Work Initiative to identify how automation is impacting our economy and outline a set of concrete policy proposals designed to better prepare the workforce for the opportunities and challenges that automation will bring.  Aspen’s work was compiled in a new report titled Automation and a Changing Economy. Together, we believe it’s important to both better understand how the economy is changing — and design appropriate policies in response.

First, employers must do more. They play a central role in our ability to adjust to automation. We should encourage businesses to:

  • invest in worker training;
  • create partnerships with educational institutions and other businesses to develop career and skills pathways;
  • apply a multi-stakeholder approach to automation decision-making that includes workers; and
  • develop proactive strategies to manage workforce transitions.

Second, workers need to adjust to changing skills needed as a result of automation. We must help workers pursue lifelong learning through effective, affordable and portable skills training and ensure that their training leads to well-paying and secure job opportunities.

Third, workers and communities hard hit by automation need targeted assistance. For these areas, we need to strengthen supports for displaced workers through retraining, job search, reemployment services, and a modernized unemployment insurance system to help them transition to new jobs and careers.

Finally, workers, employers, training and education providers and policymakers need to better understand how technology is changing the economy and labor market. We must collect better data on technological advancements, adoption and diffusion rates, and the potential impacts to the workforce.

Preparing the workforce for the challenges and opportunities of automation is achievable, but it requires an all-of-the-above approach, from targeted, specialized interventions to those with systems-level impact, and from smaller place-based policies to national safety net programs.

We’re at the beginning of understanding what the next stage of automation will mean for our economy. But we shouldn’t stifle innovation or wait for potential disruptions to respond. We can put concrete measures in place to address these opportunities and challenges today, so that we can ensure that the gains of these technologies are shared by all tomorrow.


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