It has been striking, watching and listening to the two political campaigns. In both, the challenges seem to be tied to immigration issues, “off shoring” jobs, bad trade deals, terrorism and the personal insults asserting the opposing candidate is unfit to hold high office. While both candidates may attempt to get at the underlying economic concerns of the electorate, neither has addressed what many experts believe is the dominant cause of people’s sense of uncertainty, nor have they effectively articulated a clear set of solutions. Yes, improved tax policy can help, and perhaps better trade deals can be negotiated, but average citizens rarely see or understand the details of these arcane issues.
What average people do see and understand is the reality of being replaced by a machine. Several international studies published over the past few years observe that for every job that moves out of America, five are lost to automation. The pace of that shift from humans doing routine, repetitive functions to automated equipment (robots) is accelerating. Consider the following: construction vehicles, at an increasing number of large job sites, are now operated by robots, not teamsters. Been to a Panera Bread restaurant lately? New electronic kiosks are being installed to take orders, replacing many of their counter employees. When ten years ago a billion dollar factory employed a thousand employees, today that billion dollar factory employs 30-40 people who oversee the machines now doing all the functions previously done by their human workforce.
While our politicians are directing people’s attention to jobs going off shore, immigrants and trade deals, an increasingly automated work place is quietly magnifying average citizens’ concerns about their future. The things being advocated (walls, taxes, tariffs, deportation) may impact a fraction of the underlying problems. Slowing or halting the pace of automation, however, is not an option. So, what to do?
As a starting point, we need to recognize the greatest source of people’s concerns. Then we need to find a solution. In a thoughtful analysis of the challenge, Professors Richard Murnane from Harvard and Frank Levy from MIT describe a path forward. In their study, Dancing with Robots, they categorize in very broad terms two types of skills in our workforce: those that are most likely to be automated and those that are not. They argue persuasively that we need to restructure our education system to prepare our high school and college graduates with that knowledge and those skills that are the least likely to automated, and as a consequence, command decent wages and a standard of living that we expect in the United States.
To accomplish this we need to redesign what is taught and re-define what we want our young people to know and be able to do when they complete their formal education. According to Levy and Murnane, “…it is a safe bet that the human labor market will center on three kinds of work: solving unstructured problems, working with new information, and carrying out non-routine manual tasks.” This does not mean abandoning reading, writing, math, science and history. Instead, we need to re-think how these subjects are taught and how they can be used to instill these more important and durable skills in our young people.
Understanding that we are in a period of great transition in our workplaces is vital to assuring that we can improve our economy. This period is akin to the industrial revolution, and cannot be ignored or treated as some minor problem that only impacts a small proportion of our citizens. Until we recognize it we risk devoting our energies to solving the wrong problem. Even if every trade deal was renounced and every illegal immigrant sent home, the relentless automation of commerce and industry will continue. As a consequence, the longer we wait to address the challenge, the further behind Americans will fall, exacerbating the nation’s economic uncertainty, and individual prosperity.
Bob King is the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education President.