Time to get real about automation and the future of work

My colleagues and I have written extensively about the mounting evidence that a bachelor’s degree is an essential educational credential for job security in the 21st century workforce, but whenever we do I brace for caustic feedback from skeptics in the comments section.

Our critics often point to the economic stability they enjoy because they were trained for a high-paying skilled trade jobs as evidence that we’re dead wrong about the value of a college education. But here’s the thing: The work landscape they knew yesterday -and know today -is rapidly changing, and only those who are brave and smart enough to face that reality are going to thrive in the future. Futurists and economists have offered ample proof that broad skills like the ability to communicate, create, collaborate and think critically are what employers are hiring for. These are skills that are sharpened by a college education.

I don’t look down upon skilled trades or manufacturing work. Quite the opposite. In fact, I wouldn’t be a member of the middle class without it. My great-grandfather came to Detroit from Kentucky in 1912 and became one of the earliest African American skilled trades workers at Ford Motor Company’s famed Rouge Complex. Later, my grandfather and uncle had long careers as skilled tradesmen at the Rouge – jobs that enabled them to raise their families comfortably.

But at its height, the Rouge Complex employed more than 100,000 workers. Today, it employs about 6,000 people because much of the work of modern auto assembly is done by robots. Because of automation, General Motors’ assembly plants in metro Lansing now employ fewer than 6,000 hourly workers, down from the 23,000 who built cars in the region as recently as 1979. If these facts are not enough to jolt those who pine for a return to the auto industry’s heyday as an employer into reality, I don’t know what is.

Need more proof? My colleague Lou Glazer recently wrote a blog describing how automation is depleting job opportunities in fields like mining and fast food. “The Long-Term Jobs Killer is Not China. It’s Automation,” a recent New York Times column by Claire Cain Miller, is required reading for those who really want the straight skinny about how automation will continue to shift employment. In this blog, I have quoted extensively – some might say ad nauseam – from Andrew McAfee’s and Erik Brynjolfsson’s book The Second Machine Age and its dire predictions about automation’s potential to radically remake the entire world’s employment landscape.

Still, the fervent hope that politicians can and will magically turn back the clock to expand jobs in the American manufacturing sector persists.

I recognize that there is more than one path to prosperity. But every seasoned gambler understands the wisdom of playing the odds. If workers want to boost their odds for success in a rapidly-evolving workforce (where automation is on track to make entire categories of work obsolete), they will need to develop skills that allow them to move seamlessly from job to job. Workers who only know how to do one thing are going to be left behind.

It’s true that skilled trades jobs were once Michigan workers’ gold standard for economic stability. But automation and globalization aren’t going anywhere. Even those with jobs in the manufacturing sector are going to have to be nimble in order to be relevant in an era of quickly-evolving work. Anyone who resists this reality is simply whistling past the graveyard.

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