Today’s jobs — white collar, blue collar or no collar — require more education and interpersonal skills than those in the past. And many of the people whose jobs have already been automated can’t find new ones. Technology leads to economic growth, but the benefits aren’t being parceled out equally. Policy makers have the challenge of helping workers share the gains.
That will take at least some government effort, just as it did when the United States moved from an agricultural economy to an industrial one, with policies like high school for all or workers’ rights.
Whether there’s political will for big changes remains to be seen, but here are some policies that economists and policy experts think could help now.
More Education, and Different Kinds
A broad area of agreement: People need to learn new skills to work in the new economy. “The best response is to increase the skills of the labor force,” said Gregory Mankiw, an economist at Harvard.
The most valuable thing could be to increase college enrollment and graduation rates. A growing number of jobs require a degree; the unemployment rate among people 25 to 34 with college degrees is just 2 percent, versus 8 percent for those who stopped their education after high school.
But that goal seems far-fetched at a time when only about one-third of Americans have bachelor’s degrees. For many more who lack the time, money or drive, what’s already happening is more vocational training, at community colleges or through apprenticeships. This provides a way for people to learn on the job, but the problem is that many of those jobs are probably next in line to be automated.
People who lose their job midcareer don’t necessarily have the skills to do another one. But government retraining programs are confusing and often ineffective, and many companies aren’t willing to invest in training workers only to have them poached by a rival. “It’s bipartisan judgment that it doesn’t work,” said Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University. “People are not that malleable.”
More successful, he said, is training that workers seek themselves. One idea from Third Way, a policy think tank, is free online prep courses for people who have been out of school too long to remember high school basics. Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, founders of M.I.T.’s Initiative on the Digital Economy, suggest federally guaranteed student loans for nontraditional programs like online certificates or coding boot camps.
Perhaps most effective is reaching students as early as elementary school. Educators should focus on teaching technical skills, like coding and statistics, and skills that still give humans an edge over machines, like creativity and collaboration, experts say. And since no one knows which jobs will be automated later, it may be most important to learn flexibility and how to learn new things.