(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Regardless of industry, today’s workers are bound by a common anxiety: their jobs will one day be performed by robots. While the threat is more imminent for some than for others, nearly everyone will need new skills in order to succeed. Businesses should help workers prepare for the challenges posed by automation — but they can’t shoulder the task on their own.
In the U.S., more than 7 million job openings remain unfilled. A shortage of workers is to be expected in a tight labor market, but that’s only part of the explanation. More than one in five employers say applicants lack skills necessary for the jobs on offer — not just competency in digital technologies, but also soft skills like communication and problem-solving.
As more workplace tasks become automated, this deficit threatens to leave millions of less-educated workers behind. According to a McKinsey report, low and middle-wage workers are at greatest risk of seeing their jobs become obsolete by 2030. Nearly two-thirds of the U.S. labor force will require additional training just to hold on to the jobs they currently have. High-wage jobs are expected to grow as a share of overall employment, but the country’s education system isn’t producing candidates with the skills required.
Last month, Amazon.com Inc. announced a $700 million investment to help workers learn new skills and advance their careers. The “Upskilling 2025” program is better than nothing, but still only a limited response to the problem. The company plans to create a software-engineering school to teach non-technical workers how to code. Warehouse staffers will receive paid time to study for credentials to work as IT support technicians. Amazon has also pledged to cover 95% of tuition costs for employees who pursue certificates and degrees in occupations outside of Amazon’s core businesses, such as aircraft mechanics, web design and nursing. Spread over six years, however, the company’s planned spending per worker each year will still be lower ($1,077) than the current national average ($1,296).
To upgrade the skills of Americans at greatest risk from automation, a more comprehensive approach is required — one that’s backed by government. To start, states and the federal government should boost tax credits to encourage small and medium-sized businesses to invest more in retraining low-skilled workers. States should bolster workforce development boards that help community colleges and technical schools customize course offerings to meet the needs of local industries.
The government should also do more to promote apprenticeships, which allow workers, including mid-career professionals, to earn a salary while they learn new trades. The Trump administration has approved modest increases in federal grants to apprenticeship programs, but the U.S.’s investment remains paltry compared to that of countries, like Germany, with well-developed apprenticeship systems.
Workers themselves need to embrace the idea of retraining as a lifelong endeavor. Policy makers can assist by making short-term certificate programs eligible for federal student aid, as the bipartisan JOBS Act aims to do. Subsidized individual training accounts, like those offered by Singapore’s government, would encourage more adult learners to complete unfinished degrees or seek additional credentials. And Congress should revive the previous administration’s proposal to extend wage insurance to displaced workers who take new jobs at lower salaries. That would give middle-class workers the financial cushion to pursue more education while continuing to work.
Creating an educational and training system suited for the future of work will require government, educational institutions and industry leaders to collaborate. Success is possible, but it won’t come cheap. There are some things big business — even Amazon — can’t deliver.
—Editors: Romesh Ratnesar, Clive Crook
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