Congress Examines ‘Future of Work’ Issues

Experts call for systemic workforce development reforms and investment

Roy Maurer By Roy Maurer January 21, 2020
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​Lawmakers have begun considering solutions to worries arising from the growing adoption of automation technologies and the potentially tremendous changes the "future of work" has in store for U.S. workers.

The bipartisan Congressional Future of Work Caucus in the House of Representatives wants to devise a national plan to address concerns about workplace automation, the use of artificial intelligence tools in hiring, and gig-worker rights.

The caucus is working in conjunction with the House Education and Labor Committee, which is holding hearings to prepare for legislative recommendations on these issues.

Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif., said the need to reconfigure training to help people who lose jobs to automation technology is a significant challenge.

"As automation and other emerging trends continue to disrupt our economy in new ways, we must reshape workforce programs to help all workers at risk of displacement secure in-demand skills," she said.

She added that federal investments in workforce training and employment programs have fallen behind. "We spend only about 0.1 percent of our GDP [gross domestic product] on workforce development programs, compared to an average of 0.6 percent in our peer industrialized nations. And while the U.S. labor force has grown by roughly half over the past four decades, federal investment in workforce development has fallen by two-thirds."

Davis said that workforce development programs should be more available to people who want to enhance or learn skills, and Congress must ensure that all workers can access lifelong education and training opportunities.

"Reskilling alone is insufficient to ensure workers can remain competitive," she said. "We must explore policies to proactively prevent displacement, enhance worker supports like career guidance and promote lifelong learning."

She said that Democrats are interested in expanding existing systems to more workers at risk of losing their jobs to automation, such as the Department of Labor's Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training grants, currently available to workers who lose their jobs as a result of trade imbalances.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Using Government and Other Resources for Employment and Training Programs]

Quantifying the Impact of Displacement

The question is not whether automation and artificial intelligence will fundamentally reshape work, but when, how and to what extent, said James Paretti, a shareholder in the Washington, D.C., office of law firm Littler and a member of the board of directors of the Emma Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to preparing the U.S. workforce for displacement by technology.

"There is no sign that displacement by technology will abate or recede. Every indication is that it will continue to accelerate," he said.

Recent reports from the McKinsey Global Institute and the Brookings Institution have found that jobs involving predictable tasks are the most vulnerable to displacement by automation, while the least threatened roles are those that require complex understanding or the use of soft skills, such as emotional intelligence.

Jobs such as cashiers and truck drivers are usually listed as likely for displacement, but many white-collar roles in accounting, banking and health care will be disrupted, too, Paretti said. It is also important to note that the displacement of some jobs by automation will result in the creation of new and different jobs, he said.

Remaking the Workforce Development System

Seth Harris, former deputy secretary of labor in President Barack Obama's administration, doesn't think there will be a massive loss of employment triggered by new technologies, but he believes that the nation's workforce development system needs a major overhaul anyway.

"The workforce development system's patchwork design consists of a long list of programs dedicated to particular populations of workers," he said. "Workers who are not in the specified categories are not served by these programs. Workers ineligible for one program may be able to secure services from other programs, but large numbers of workers cannot find a place in any of these programs, including workers at risk of displacement in the near future who may not be currently unemployed."

Harris cited a lack of funding for training programs; problematic education policies, such as students seeking short-term education not being eligible for Pell grants; and a confusing array of credentials offered by education and training providers.

"After all the years during which the workforce development system and its advocates have touted career pathways, clearly articulated and well-developed career pathways are not common," he said. "There are too few occupations in which a worker can start down a career path with a clear road map that will allow them to know where that path leads and the reliable rest stops along the way. Too few education and training programs lead to a guaranteed or near-guaranteed return like a registered apprenticeship or employer-provided training does."

Some of the actions Congress should take, according to Harris, include:

  • Substantially increasing funding of workforce development programs.
  • Expanding eligibility for Pell grants.
  • Advancing the Department of Labor's registered apprenticeships. He is not in favor of  industry-recognized apprenticeship programs. "That's a false solution in search of a problem," he said.
  • Establishing a common taxonomy of competencies and credentials to show their demand and value to employers in terms of available jobs and wages. "Everyone must share their data about credentials and their outcomes," he said. "The government should require public disclosure of these data."
  • Expanding intensive services such as assessments, job-search and placement assistance, and one-on-one career counseling and case management. "Make the program universal," Harris said. "Everyone should have ready access to intensive services, and not just when they are unemployed."

Like many others, Paretti believes that the way students and workers are educated needs to change. "In too many instances and industries, gone are the days when a terminal degree or certification would ensure that an individual is provided with the skills they need to ensure continued opportunity throughout their working lifetime," he said. "The need for workers throughout their careers to be agile is paramount. The willingness, and hopefully eagerness, to evolve, adapt and upskill will be critical."

The Emma Coalition endorses the idea of lifelong learning accounts—portable, tax-favored savings accounts that could fund workers' education and training throughout their lives.

This proposal is being floated around the halls of Congress and discussed by the White House American Workforce Policy Advisory Board.

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