Op-Ed: How to Prepare New Jersey Workers for Seismic Job Changes

Patricia Morgan | January 18, 2019 | Opinion
Existing jobs are being phased out by technology. If we don’t adapt — and effectively become lifelong students — we risk greater unemployment

Patricia Morgan
Rapid technological advancements and increasing automation are creating new employment demands that threaten to leave large swaths of the workforce behind. Employees of today and of the future will need to be agile and adapt to multiple trainings to obtain new skills throughout their careers. As existing jobs are phased out by technology, all of us will effectively become lifelong students.

To meet this demand — be it crisis or opportunity — requires educators, employers, and politicians to evolve their perspectives on workforce training programs, career pathways, and education systems to allow for more flexibility, knowledge growth and skills attainment over time and at different intervals in people’s careers, and the development of universal skills that cannot be automated like critical thinking, teamwork, and empathy.

We can embrace what is being called this “Age of Agility,” referring to the need for individuals to pivot and be open to new career paths throughout their lives, or we can risk rising levels of unemployment as jobs are phased out without a next step for millions of Americans. To this end, on January 9, educational advocacy organization JerseyCAN convened business leaders, education experts, and policymakers for an Age of Agility Summit New Jersey to discuss the future of work and its impact on workforce pathways and education.

The evidence of rising automation and its threat to workforce norms is clear. A 2016 study out of Oxford University predicted that a whopping 47 percent of all U.S. jobs may be eliminated by technological advances in the next 10 to 20 years, including “most workers in transportation and logistics operations, together with the bulk of office and administrative support workers, and labor in production occupations.” A “substantial share” of service jobs are also “highly susceptible to computerization.”

The consequences of automation up to this point are mostly seen in low-skilled manual positions, but white-collar or cognitive-based jobs will not be spared. Artificial intelligence-driven writing software already exists and is used commercially in a service called Quill that can generate articles and reports on a range of topics including sports, business, and politics. In the financial sphere, JP Morgan Chase & Co. employs a program called COIN, short for Contract Intelligence, that interprets and analyzes commercial loan agreements in seconds and better than a human ever could, a task that otherwise consumed 360,000 hours of work each year by lawyers and loan officers. Other industries will be deeply impacted by automation and AI in more indirect ways. According to a report from global accounting firm KPMG, “the personal auto insurance industry could shrink to 40 percent of its current size within 25 years as cars become safer thanks to self-driving tech.”

On the flip side: labor shortages

On the flip side, as automation speeds up, there will be significant labor shortages in other sectors of the economy. According to a 2015 report from McKinsey and Company, “By 2020, around the world, there is likely to be a shortage of approximately 40 million high-skilled workers and 45 million medium-skilled workers. Against that will be a surplus of 95 million low-skilled workers.” While the most routine tasks will be automated first and fastest, new jobs will be added to complement the automation and fill in the gaps with more interpersonal and critical thinking skills.

This job shift can already be seen in manufacturing industries that have become more computerized — automotive and diesel technicians, for instance, spend much of their time communicating with and analyzing the many computers within one car or truck. Steve McElfresh, Campus President of the automotive and diesel technical educator Universal Technical Institute-Bloomfield, spoke at the Age of Agility conference on the impact of technological advances on the school’s curriculum: “With everything from our kitchen appliances to our cars powered by sophisticated digital systems, skilled technicians will increasingly dominate the workforce. Today’s techs need to be sophisticated digital analysts and diagnosticians, and that requires a sophisticated, industry-aligned education.”

With the current U.S. workforce trained for the positions that exist now and in the recent past, millions of individuals will need significant additional training or re-training to adapt to the coming economic reality. In turn, job training and our education system must adapt to accommodate an economy where individuals can be expected to change positions several times over the course of their careers. At the Age of Agility Summit, State Sen. Teresa Ruiz, chair of the Senate Education Committee, noted the need for industry and educators to develop a backward mapping of agile skills into curriculums. Equally important will be flexibility in our educational systems and structures to adapt to teaching new skills, competencies, and credentials to meet future workforce needs. We need policies and programs that allow for flexibility in educational settings for the sake of students, employers and the overall economy.

Continuous education lies ahead

Educational institutions can encourage skills that will be in demand in the new job market, such as novel and adaptive thinking, cross-cultural competency, and cognitive load management. Greater communication and collaboration between educators and employers can help ensure students receive the most up-to-date and relevant training as the economy continues to shift. Businesses can offer their employees more time and resources to undergo additional training or re-training. Some high-profile employers, including Disney, Discover, and Yum Brands, have instituted programs to send front-line and lower-skilled workers back to school, often paying for tuition, fees, books, and other major expenses up-front and in full. Walmart, for instance, subsidizes education costs for a business or supply-chain management associate’s or bachelor’s degree such that a Walmart associate only contributes about $1 per day for their tuition, books, and other fees.

Our business leaders in New Jersey are well aware of the challenges employers face in finding skilled workers and they are committed to building a pipeline of skilled workers that can adapt in this new innovation economy. Indeed, to conclude the Age of Agility conference, NJ Chamber of Commerce president & CEO Thomas Bracken and NJBIA president & CEO Michele Siekerka presented a call to action on the changing economic landscape and the importance of a partnership between business and education.

“The most important thing, for me, is building the bridge,” said Siekerka. “A business has to go find that educational institution and help them forge the pathway for their students to a career, the path from the institution to the business’s front door.” Likewise, students and employees should be cognizant of the continuous education that lies ahead of them and take steps to keep their career pathways open and flexible.

On a fundamental level we need to rethink how we conceptualize job training and education and how individuals develop careers over time. To ensure our economy has the workforce needed to address increasing automation, we must shift our mentality to put employee development at its core. The Age of Agility is upon us, and either we invest in our workforce and education systems to meet this challenge or we risk labor shortages and high unemployment.