“Flying Blind” Into the Future of Work

| By TMA World

I grew up in the U.K. – in the county of Shropshire to be exact – often called the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution.  Starting in 1779, Abraham Darby III built the world’s first bridge made of cast iron; it spanned the River Severn in the village of Coalbrookedale, and is still standing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site

The British Industrial Revolution heralded a period of radical economic, social, and political disruption that no one could accurately foresee or manage.  With advances in metallurgy, machinery and steam power, mass production became possible and work moved from houses to factories. Factories needed a plentiful supply of workers and urban areas grew rapidly. While the standard of living improved for some, the poor and working classes were often faced with grim realities.  Karl Marx and Charles Dickens found their voices in these times.  

In 2017, we are talking about entering the Fourth Industrial Revolution driven by the rise of automation, robotics and artificial intelligence (AI).  The challenge in our time is not the demand for workers, but possibly the lack of demand for workers.  The Wall Street Journal says, “Never before have American companies tried so hard to employ so few people.” Can we manage this latest revolutionary transition more effectively?

A new study – entitled “Information Technology and the Workforce: Where Are We and Where Do We Go From Here?” – published by US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine says that “Policymakers are flying blind into what has been called the fourth industrial revolution.”   The co-authors – Tom Mitchell, the E. Fredkin University Professor in the Carnegie Mellon University School of Computer science, and Erick Brynjolfsson, the Schussel Family Professor in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Sloan School of Management – look to data for solutions.

Mitchell and Brynjolfsson say what America needs is “an integrated information strategy” to respond to shifts in the labor market.  One element of this would be a public-private collaboration to develop new tools for measuring, monitoring technology, jobs, and skills.  Information from many sources will be required to develop an AI Index like the Consumer Price Index, but as the authors point out, “Much of the needed data for observing, understanding and adapting to the workforce challenges are not gathered in a systematic way, or worse, simply do not exist.”

We are currently experiencing the rise of far-right popularism in Europe and the United States due to worker anxieties triggered by the market and labor force disruptions created by globalization. Further disruptions created by automation will add increased pressure on the social fabric. By pulling together data from traditional government statistics and online services like LinkedIn and Udacity, a worker in a declining occupation could gain useful insights into a more promising occupation with similar skills, but also requiring some new ones.  Information on job openings, and the effectiveness of training programs for skill development and job placement could also be available.  Currently, however, government surveys are not really designed to track technology and its impact.

One program that might point in the right direction is Skillfull which is a collaboration between the Markle Foundation, LinkedIn, Arizona State University, and edX (a non-profit provider of online courses).  Skillfull partners with employers, educators, and local governments in Colorado and the Phoenix area to link jobs, skills, and training in a more integrated way.

The digital revolution requires governments, employers, employees, and training providers to collaborate to make more informed decisions.  This will be a large, but necessary, undertaking if we are to minimize the social disruptions of previous industrial revolutions.  No data infrastructure will be perfect, but as Mitchell and Brynjolfsson argue, “Perfection here is not a prerequisite for utility – we need and can have a dramatic improvement over flying blind.” 

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