Recently, the Inquirer Editorial Board correctly recognized the damaging forces of automation and artificial intelligence and called upon Washington, D.C. to make a plan. The op-ed shoots the right arrow, but at the wrong target and several years too late.
Understand, Washington D.C. struggles to understand emerging technology and only just recently established the National AI Advisory Committee. Our federal government is plagued by polarization and incapable of rapid change. Furthermore, the workforce development system is funded by Congress, managed by states, governed by local appointees, and designed to serve workers after unemployment hits. It is also infamous for poor results. How will it prepare the future workforce?
Yes, Washington D.C. should enact better policy. For example, Congress should offer tax incentives for entry-level employee training. Instead, rising rates of robot purchases are a tax write-off. National leaders, under the current political culture, cannot adequately respond to this challenge in time. Local leaders and residents cannot afford to wait.
Science and technology advance much faster than education and training systems can keep pace. Many people here are in low-wage, low quality jobs, vulnerable to automation.
Responses must be agile and ongoing with as much immunity from politics, and without disdain for government, as possible. Every region of the U.S will need to respond in unique ways. The Biden Administration knows this and directed the Economic Development Administration to competitively grant $1 billion dollars in recently announced awards. The Southeast Pennsylvania region will see an investment of $22,776,361 over three years to build pipelines to good jobs in the industries of health care and life sciences, energy, and building and construction.
Philadelphia Works, West Philadelphia Skills Initiative, Philadelphia Energy Authority, and the Philadelphia Area Labor Management Committee, will partner with regional employers, training providers, and community-based organizations to bring this project to fruition. Congratulations to Philadelphia Works and all partners for securing the highly competitive award. However, less than $8 million annually is not enough to meet the moment.
We will need more federal, state and local funds to scale and sustain successful programs. Notably, Superintendent Watlington of the School District of Philadelphia just announced pilot programs to incorporate career exposure and education at three neighborhood high schools. However, no additional budget has been allocated to “revamp” curriculum. Nevertheless, this is all a good start. Leaders need the space to “fail fast” without fear of getting fired or pillared in the press.
Science and technology advance much faster than education and training systems can keep pace. Many people here are in low-wage, low quality jobs, vulnerable to automation. The time is now for people, employers, community organizations, academia, major institutions, labor unions and local and state governments to act proactively.
People know Washington will not solve this problem. But do people know how to practice lifelong learning, assess training programs or actively manage a livelihood? Who will teach these things?
We should regularly crowdsource expertise, analyze the regional economy’s opportunities and vulnerabilities and act strategically. We can accurately assess current talent pipelines and develop untapped talent to build new bridges for more opportunity. We can remedy the skills mismatch. Philadelphia has several bright spots and star programs, but the scale is currently dozens when it needs to be thousands. It will not happen overnight and requires a powerful and ongoing effort.
Leaders have a responsibility to communicate about the technological changes on the horizon. People will need financial support for basic needs and access to high quality, affordable training programs, before unemployment strikes. Otherwise, companies will lack key talent. People know Washington will not solve this problem. But do people know how to practice lifelong learning, assess training programs or actively manage a livelihood? Who will teach these things? Very few high schools or universities prepare graduates for the AI-fueled and automated future.
Sometimes, large corporations teach people on the job. Workers can be more prepared for the jobs of the future if they are working in a company that is actively preparing itself. How does a new hire really know which employers are best for career growth and pathways? Companies and regional leaders have the capability and self-interest to make a difference. Customers, shareholders and especially elected leaders can strategically reward the most model employers in the region. Naming and shaming should be a last resort. Currently, “Best Workplaces” lists are popularity contests, not driven by science and metrics.
Stakeholder companies are now assessed by the World Economic Forum on specific metrics. It is now time for local leaders to use standard, international metrics. The next Mayor and City Council should work with county leaders to laud and award regional employers who adopt future-shaping strategies such as:
- Inclusive job designs and hiring practices that re-examine the need for a college degree
- Transparent learning paths on the job, linked to employee pay and promotion
- Fair wages that openly reflect greater wage parity between employees and CEOs
- Employee voice on the job, especially in the design and adoption of tech solutions
State and local elected leaders, along with major employers, also need to collaborate on regional talent strategies. Every large company could build apprenticeship programs, the way IBM and CompTIA are doing. Another option is industry partnerships, like the ones at our very own Wistar Institute, where similar employers collaborate to ensure talent supply, rather than poach one another’s employees. This way, talent supply and demand can be more readily assessed with more notice to all stakeholders, about AI and automation implementation, and other biotech disruptions to regional labor markets.
The need for unions
According to the MIT Work of the Future Task Force, higher unionization rates are the straightest path to rebuild the middle class and stabilize society. Labor unions are the straightest path to a more inclusive economy with fair compensation, health benefits, a voice in the design of new technology, and severance pay if displaced by technology.
For this reason, elected leaders must call upon major employers located here, and multinational companies that operate here, to adopt labor neutrality. Labor neutrality is a legal agreement between an employer and a union that allows employees to freely and fairly choose a union without fear of retribution or job loss from the employer.
Just this week, Home Depot workers filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to form a union. This is real courage from workers. Typically, the full power of an entire corporation will press down upon the lead organizers. They risk losing their jobs or worse. Companies spend hundreds of millions annually to hire anti-union consultants. This is a real opportunity for every elected leader from Congress to the Councilperson to call upon Home Depot to commit to democratic principles and allow workers to freely vote up or down for a union.
According to the MIT Work of the Future Task Force, higher unionization rates are the straightest path to rebuild the middle class and stabilize society.
Microsoft just signed a labor neutrality agreement with the Communications Workers of America. More major employers need to follow suit. Political leaders should shower kudos on companies who practice stakeholder capitalism so they can enjoy the brand enhancement too. With or without labor neutrality, political leaders should adopt international stakeholder metrics and standards and apply them locally to then recognize all of the model employers in our media market, annually.
Churn and disruptions are inevitable as technology advances faster every day. The pragmatic course of action is to recognize and bridge the gaps between advancing technology, corporate interests and the limited power levers of state and local government. Considering the climate of political dysfunction, the future of leadership is now, and close to home.
Anne Gemmell was the City’s first pre-K director and then led the “future of work” policy response. She founded Future Works Alliance PHL and is now a certified collaboration architect at A.Gemm Consulting, a business specializing in strategic collaboration for innovative leaders.
MORE FROM ANNE GEMMELL’S FUTURE READY SERIESPhoto by Eric Krull on Unsplash