How to Future-Proof the Workforce

By Tess Posner

Amidst ongoing debate about the future of work and how technology is transforming the economy, I recently attended the Innovation for Jobs Summit (i4j)—a two-day intensive gathering at Google that brings together 50 leaders from business, tech, government, venture capital, and media to explore job creation and the future of the economy. When we last met in October 2014, the discussion focused on innovation’s potential to unlock valuable work. This time around, a key takeaway was that there are many possible versions of the future economy, and as technology reshapes how we work, we need to be proactive in creating an inclusive future where everyone has equal opportunity to benefit.

Innovation for Jobs Summit, 2015
Innovation for Jobs Summit, 2015

One conversation that especially stood out to me was on how the increasing speed of advancement in automation will destroy and create jobs and shape the future economy. Automation increases efficiency and productivity, lowers the cost of production, and introduces opportunities for new business models. The not-so-good news? It displaces workers whose skill sets can’t keep up with the new tools. Experts predict that, as the processing speed of computers doubles roughly every 18 months and machines become ever smarter, 50% of today’s corporate jobs will be obsolete by 2025. It’s important to note though that these advances not only destroy but also have the potential to create new types of jobs—ones that involve managing these new processes and systems—and even new industries. Consider, for example, telesurgeons who perform surgeries remotely, 3D-printed food chefs, and platforms for on-demand work that has spurred a new industry. Car services Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar brought in $140 million in revenues in San Francisco in 2013. Whether or not demand for these new roles can match the supply of workers displaced by technology, and keep employment rates steady, remains a critical question. Either way, the dwindling half-life of skills is a given, and we need to address this to avoid talent gaps for the jobs of the future.

Regardless of what the future of work might bring, proficiency with technology will be necessary to compete and have a chance at success in any of the new economies. According to the Pew Research Center, as much as 77% of jobs will require tech skills within the next decade. Middle and upper class workers with ready access to technology will continue to build their skills and have a higher chance to thrive, while people from less privileged backgrounds will risk being left out. We need to act now to level the playing field and future-proof those communities that are least likely to have the opportunity to benefit from and contribute to the future economy.

What does future-proofing mean? It brings together three factors: access to technology, basic digital literacy, and the ability to use technology to self-teach and continuously build new skills.

We need to prioritize efforts to increase access to technology and digital skills. Many people in the tech community don’t recognize the huge barriers to entry underprivileged communities face. Low-income and minority households are disproportionately affected by the digital divide. Nearly 50% of U.S. households earning less than $10,000 don’t have internet at home, and 28% of Americans don’t use internet at all. The reason has nothing to do with aptitude or motivation. It’s all about access. To realize everyone’s potential to contribute to the new economy, we need to promote initiatives like that provide low-cost internet and computers to people in need.

We also need invest in workforce development and education programs that develop self-teaching skills. These programs should produce agile workers who are empowered to pursue lifelong learning as the economy evolves and demands new skills. Changing the k-20 education system is a necessary long-term investment- but shorter-term solutions that are cost-effective and highly scalable can be deployed to test new ideas for immediate impact. For example, we run SamaUSA’s 80-hour bootcamp for less than $3,000 per student, a cost that includes training, student supports and laptop scholarships and is offered for free to students. We see students that have never made an email account succeed in online jobs like customer service and virtual assistant for companies thousands of miles away. Take Stacy—a 38-year-old single mom who lives in the rural town of Dumas, Ark. Before attending SamaUSA’s 10-week bootcamp for digital skills and online entrepreneurship, she was working part-time as a gas attendant. Now she is a knowledge worker in the digital economy who earns more than 30 percent more than the local minimum wage. Other promising programs include partnerships such as P21 to bring these skills into high schools and government efforts like the recently launched TechHire initiative.

Granted, these three factors—access, digital skills, self-teaching—do not amount to a panacea and won’t be sufficient for all people to thrive. We still need to address questions like how to facilitate innovation in business models, public-private collaboration, and policies that not only create jobs but create good jobs. Many bright and talented minds, like those at i4j, are already working to take on these challenges. And in the meantime, we should act on what we already know. Let’s invest now in ensuring everyone has the new basic competencies to compete in the future economy, whatever form it may take.

Tess Posner

Tess Posner is Managing Director of Samaschool, a global social venture that equips low-income people to succeed in the digital economy.