Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Skill Incubators and Accelerators: A Panacea for The Automation Age?

By Evan Robertson, Senior Project Associate

Automation is an uncomfortable topic for this economic development professional. It is our responsibility after all to ensure that the local business community is able to compete in the global marketplace. In today’s digital age, this increasingly means creating an environment that fosters innovation and technology adoption. Strategies and interventions can take a variety of forms whether through organizations such as Quad Cities Manufacturing Innovation Hub that diffuse best practices through industry or financially incentivizing technology investment through tax incentives and exemptions. Staying ahead of the innovation curve is vital because declining competitiveness can, over the near- and long-term, lead to ruinous consequences. One need only look as far as the numerous communities in the southeast that were, and still are, devastated by the globalization of the textile industry.

But technology has always had a labor displacing property. When’s the last time you spoke with a telephone switch board operator? Yet Luddites will profess that this time is different. And in some respects their fears are valid. Automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence are forging new paths in areas where technology has long under-performed humanity: speech recognition, cognition, vision, and mixed initiative interactions among others. Put simply, these technologies are entering areas once previously thought to be outside the realm of possibility (excl. sci-fi geeks). The end result is that the bulk of our current work activities may become redundant as these technologies further advance. McKinsey Global Institute recently found that about half of all work activities globally have the potential to be automated using current technologies. The Institute is quick to indicate that the realized impact will likely be lower given social, economic, and technical constraints. Over time these constraints will vanish as business and social norms restructure – allowing for more pervasive adoption.

While I fall on the technological optimist side of things (i.e. new types of jobs will be created by new technology), my concern is 1) the lag between job destruction and new job creation and 2) whether workers displaced by automation will be competitive for the new jobs created by automation. As the World Economic Forum points out, this is an immense opportunity for worker retraining and reskilling. What they don’t highlight, however, is that worker retraining and reskilling has not historically been an extremely effective tool for addressing factory closure or mass layoffs. In some respects the Forum alludes to this in the report “As the types of skills needed in the labour market change rapidly, individual workers will have to engage in life-long learning if they are to remain not just employable but are to achieve fulfilling and rewarding careers that allow them to maximize their employment opportunities.” Easier said than done.

If the change is truly rapid, traditional education pathways (four-year degree or two-year certificate programs) are insufficient mechanisms to insulate workers from displacement without large reductions in life-long earning potential. Online education is a likely pathway to life-long learning since it has the potential to engage workers across a variety of mediums while workers remains employed. However, online education is not without its pitfalls. 
As a self-professed Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) junkie, I can tell you that life-long learning, or any type of learning, is a time consuming process. If the life-long learning burden falls upon workers it will almost inevitably equate to time spent away from other things – spending time with kids, vacation, yelling at your favorite soccer team, you know the important stuff. Along with the time commitment, navigating the vast array of options available is a challenge. Coursera alone offers 2,274 courses packaged into a variety of specializations and certificates. edX offers three types of certificate programs: MicroMasters (~46 total offerings), Professional (~52), and xSeries (~42) certificates. Which of these, exactly, is going to insulate me from automation? For someone without a bachelor’s or master’s degree education, I can only imagine the difficulty of selecting the right pathway – especially considering that there is little evidence that employers view these certificates as bona-fide credentials.

Along with online education, other non-traditional training pathways are also emerging that could also insulate workers from the ravages of automation. Coding, web design, and user interface design boot camps are sprouting up in cities across the United States. Atlanta is home to a handful including General Assembly, ThinkFul, Big Nerd Ranch, Software Guild, and DigitalCrafts. These non-traditional pathways have their own set of challenges, most important: there isn’t wide spread acceptance among employers that graduates from these programs are equal to or better than graduates pouring out of computer science departments across the country. These programs are also fairly costly, ranging from thousands to tens of thousands of dollars.

Life-long learning may be a panacea for assuaging automation. Yet promoting life-long learning among employers and workers is going to require cultural change. As economic development professionals operate in the nexus between the public and private sector, we can expedite this cultural change. At the same time, it may be worthwhile to approach life-long learning in the same manner that we approach start-up creation. Creating community and spaces where life-long learners can intermingle and share learnings could add value to the time commitment associated with the learning process (after all who doesn’t reflect positively on their bachelor’s or graduate school days). If life-long learning is the currency of tomorrow, skill incubators and accelerators could very well be the infrastructure necessary to insulate workers and communities from rapid technological disruption.