I don’t debate that there’s going to be a robot revolution. My question is, will it be an American one?
— Matt Rendall, Otto CEO and co-founder, originally quoted in this article by Kevin J. Ryan, staff writer for Inc. Magazine.
Every so often, the Redevelopment Resources main blogspot is dedicated, in full or in part, to the rise and evolution of technology, and its effects on local economic and workforce development. Whether it’s encouraging learning to code for young and old alike, highlighting “Where Life Meets Art” in the age of robotics, or how machines are being leveraged to enhance learning, the affect that technology is having on the workforce (see the National Conversation on the future of American jobs) and the global economic landscape is inescapable.
Shifts such as these are difficult to navigate. Technology is changing and evolving at such a rate that it is generally impossible to the layperson to keep up — but it is the layperson that will ultimately be affected (and likely for the worse from their perspective). In such a climate, the temptation to hearken back to a more stable time, where manufacturing jobs in particular were abundant, and the middle class American dream was not only achievable – but achieved (as evidenced by the strong growth in the economy and rise in the middle class across the nation) is palpable.
In those times, national GDP, job numbers and income growth were heavily correlated. However, as pointed out in the quoted article penned by Ryan, the correlation between the GDP and jobs has been steadily decreasing for the last 20 years or so. During this same period, the correlation between incomes and education has been tightening. In decades past, individuals with high school diplomas or less were able to make a living wage. Today, not only are the wages for these folks lower, but their overall employ-ability in the high-tech, knowledge and innovation-based labor market is much lower. (See the most recent Bureau of Labor Statics data on this here.)
The rise in technology, shifts in the American social fabric (including a steep rise in drug abuse as well as incarceration rates), as well as increased access to a global labor (and consumer) market, has irretrievably changed the game.
Change is inevitable. Growth is optional.
One thing is clear: attempting to speed forward while looking backwards is not a strategy. Are there points of learning and old training formats (such as apprenticeships – see Wisconsin’s program here) that can be made relevant in today’s marketplace? Absolutely. But attempting to revive industries that are not market-actuated is not realistic.
Redevelopment Resources’ work often brings us into small often rural towns, usually in the aftermath of a local economic apocalypse of one stripe or another. During a public forum of downtown business and property owners in one of these communities, one recently retired owner said, “Twenty, twenty-five years ago, the State decided to re-route the state highway that used to run right past downtown here. It was the worst thing they could have done to this town. What we really need to do is get in touch with those folks at the DOT and get them to change it back.” After a moment or two of murmuring from the crowd, we returned with this:
“Let’s maintain a laser-like focus on the few things within our community that we have the direct power to change. The likelihood of getting the DOT to return to a previously rejected system is probably unrealistic, but what we can do is create a gateway and atmosphere that encourages folks to roll straight ahead into the downtown at that key intersection, rather than turn with the highway route.”
Managing technological and labor market shifts can be seen in much the same light: maintain a laser-like focus on the few systems and functions that local entities have the direct power to change, such as:
- Increased focus on, and access to, technology-based education
- Increased local partnerships between business and local, regional and/or statewide technology groups
- Increases in re-training programs where automation is impacting the labor market
While the list could go on, there is a glaring “why none of those will work” – which is funding. Uncertainty in federal budget outlays, coupled with a corresponding state response, may be on the horizon. Public dollars changing focus could lead to relationships between the business community, education providers and economic development professionals moving beyond the BR&E chat, and towards shared community outcomes and local labor market imperative.
Through this possible new lens, increasing the focus on, and access to, technology-based education will require extensive relationship-building and leveraging between education providers and business entities – as well as an effective marketing campaign on not only training availability, but relevancy. Increasing partnerships with technology-based organizations at local, regional and state levels increases the talent pool with which to conduct this training, and to provide mentorship for employees on the technological sidelines.
Plugging people into re-training programs is critical for the long-term viablity of a community, and may require creative thinking. For example, the issue may be less about an individual’s fears of learning new skills, but more about child care challenges, or decreases in food access due to a reduced income. Creative partnerships that provide a supportive structure around this training are just as critical as ensuring the training is available to begin with.