The Future of (Inclusive) Work
by Smart City Expo Atlanta
May 13, 2020
Well before COVID-19, governments and organizations around the world were grappling with the future of work. Keenly aware that an inability to bridge the skills gap threatened the global economy and hindered innovation, global leaders made it a priority to address the challenges of reskilling and upskilling our labor market.
In 2019, Deloitte reported that almost half the population of the EU lacked basic digital skills and that one-third of European citizens had none or almost no digital skills at all. The report went on to state that approximately 40% of employers were struggling to fill job vacancies due to lack of necessary skills, while 30% of graduates were employed in positions where their undergraduate studies were not even relevant.
Local leaders across the U.S. have also been sounding the horn on the impact of automation and the need to prepare a workforce of the future, particularly in communities of color. The African-American Mayors Association, under the leadership of then-president, Mayor Hardie Davis, Jr. of Augusta, GA, issued a report stating that African-American and Latino workers were at a higher risk of job loss due to historic disparities and lower levels of education.
With 33 million people filing for unemployment in the last eight weeks, the need to build a resilient and skilled workforce has become increasingly urgent. It also provides a tremendous opportunity for cities to lead, learn, collaborate, and reimagine what the future of work can and should look like.
Reskilling and Upskilling Yields Innovation
The economic downturn has created serious long-term uncertainty for workers, and low-skill jobs are at particular risk of displacement. Programs through which these workers can learn new skills (at current or future jobs) are essential to a healthy, productive, and innovative workforce of the future.
Before the COVID-19 crisis, reskilling and upskilling were emerging as staples of the modern workforce. Companies like Amazon, Microsoft, and Shell were leading the charge with significant investments in upskilling efforts. Other organizations were also committed to preparing workers, including often-overlooked groups, for the future of work. Among them are digital coding boot camp Covalence, statewide public-private partnership Skillful Indiana, and Pursuit, a social impact organization that helps adults learn to code, launch careers in tech, and achieve social and economic mobility. These training programs have had a meaningful domino effect across communities.
“We’re not just about helping our Fellows transform their lives, but also their families and communities as well,” says Jukay Hsu, Co-Founder and CEO of Pursuit. “When our Fellows are successful, they’ll be able to take care of their families, they’ll be able to reinvest in their communities, they’ll be able to provide a pathway for other people in their neighborhoods to enter the tech industry. That’s what we’re interested in: how does transformation extend beyond the individual and impact families, communities, and the tech industry itself.”
Pursuit uses an innovative financing model called Pursuit Bonds which are essentially “career impact bonds” to upskill and reskill people from marginalized communities. Social Finance recently launched a career impact bond giving low-income individuals access to training in high-growth industries. In a recent Impact Alpha podcast, Tracy Palandjian, CEO of Social Finance, explained that a strong public benefit will be served if impact investors continue to “take the risk for low-income individuals who want to upskill themselves, who want to acquire the competencies – whether a license, credential or degree – to compete in the new economy.”
We’re committed to working with companies to transform their hiring practices and break down barriers to employment to create opportunity for nontraditional talent.
Inclusivity Drives Economic Growth
As the economy looks to recover, we must rebuild our institutions with a focus on equity. In addition to providing skills and training to potential employees, establishing more inclusive hiring practices is a critical component of reinvigorating the workplace. As new work emerges, there is increased opportunity for urban environments to take a mindful approach to employment. Rather than malign the shortage of engineers, for example, employers can find talent in areas they aren’t yet looking—and to meet demand, they will have to. But creating more inclusive hiring practices first requires a fundamental mindset shift.
“Traditionally, when sourcing candidates, companies will look to traditional measures of success such as a college degree, professional experience, or networks,” says Hsu. “Because people like our Fellows don’t possess those credentials, they may not be able to take advantage of opportunities, even though they have the skills to succeed. We’re committed to working with companies to transform their hiring practices and break down barriers to employment to create opportunity for nontraditional talent.”
One traditionally overlooked talent pool? Formerly incarcerated individuals. A 2018 study found that the unemployment rate among the formerly incarcerated is 27%—worse than the national unemployment rate during the Great Depression, or any other time in U.S. history.
Some organizations have already begun to draw from this untapped talent pool. In 2018, Slack launched Next Chapter, a technical apprenticeship program employing formerly incarcerated people. And other companies have now implemented “open hiring” practices, hiring without asking candidates background questions, and in many states employers are actually banned from asking applicants about their criminal history in the early stages of recruitment.
More inclusive workplaces aren’t just a nice idea on paper, either. In addition to offering meaningful employment to often-excluded groups, more diverse workplaces are more likely to retain talent, and tend to perform better—creating better outcomes for companies, people, and cities, alike.
One major step forward in building a resilient and inclusive workforce took place this week with a new Department of Labor rule making it easier for businesses to set up apprenticeships. Globally-recognized as an alternative to a traditional four-year education, apprenticeships are designed so that individuals can earn a wage while they learn specific skills. Upon completion of the apprenticeship, they receive an industry-recognized credential and are on a direct path to a well-paying career.
Apprenticeships have been instrumental in diversifying workforces and a source of highly skilled labor around the world. Germany has been a model for apprenticeships boasting almost twenty times the amount of apprenticeships in the U.S. and mostly for highly-skilled jobs such as robotics, as opposed to blue-collar jobs in the U.S.
But the perception of apprenticeships in the U.S. has been changing, in large part to the work of local leaders. Last year, Mayor London Breed of San Francisco teamed up with Twilio to expand the TechSF Apprenticeship Initiative to develop a new and diverse generation of software engineers and cybersecurity analysts. The model is removing barriers to entry for people from underserved communities who would have otherwise needed a computer science degree to be considered for similar opportunities.
Similarly, Mayor Randall Woodfin of Birmingham, AL has been at the forefront of building inclusive 21st century economies. With only 55% of high school students in Birmingham going on to college, he is focused on expanding apprenticeships and digital fluency programs. Woodfin visited Germany in 2018 to learn more about their famed apprenticeship programs, and last year launched the Birmingham Promise Apprenticeship Pilot Program which gives students an opportunity to work and learn in high-skilled areas of finance and insurance, healthcare and life sciences, energy and engineering, and digital technology.
High-skilled jobs yield stronger regional and local economic development. In addition to apprenticeships, Woodfin is committed to developing digital fluency programs, as evidenced through his Birmingham Can Code initiative—a partnership between Lawson State Community College, Apple, Birmingham City Schools, and the City of Birmingham.
“Digital skills are an important piece of the puzzle for today’s workers and communities. Increasingly, industry requires some level of digital literacy for workers to access entry level jobs. Those communities that make it a priority to invest in programs and partnerships that better equip residents with digital skills will, in turn, create an economy that is inclusive and able to respond in the wake of COVID-19 and future economic downturns,” says Waymond Jackson, CEO of Birmingham-based Ed Farm, an Apple supported education and workforce development initiative designed to equip educators in schools and communities with innovative tools and strategies that support active learning for all students.
Those communities that make it a priority to invest in programs and partnerships that better equip residents with digital skills will, in turn, create an economy that is inclusive and able to respond in the wake of COVID-19 and future economic downturns.
Man and Machine
As we work to shore up our workforce and mitigate displacement through upskilling, equitable hiring practices, and apprenticeships, AI, big data, and automation will nonetheless continue to disrupt the way people actually go about their work—for the better.
If the current situation has shown us anything, it is that while AI may upend lower skilled jobs, AI is not capable of replacing humans. “You’re more likely to have a machine automate part of your job, not destroy your job entirely,” writes Matt Simon in WIRED. He notes that Amazon’s hiring of 100,000 individuals in response to the COVID-19 crisis is evidence that even a company at the forefront of innovation still needs humans to fulfill tasks. Simon further observes that automation in healthcare is freeing up doctors and nurses to spend more time on critical issues. Additionally, we could never replace the extraordinary work and empathy of those on the front lines of healthcare and safety.
Collaboration with AI, rather than competition, will allow both humans and technology to play to their unique strengths, with technology bringing efficiency and accuracy, and humans delivering creativity and complex problem solving. And by assuming the most monotonous, time-consuming responsibilities, technology will give employees the time and bandwidth to focus on problem solving, interpersonal interaction, and other, more satisfying, job functions. It’s time to start thinking of emerging technologies as assistants, rather than villains.
COVID-19 has created significant economic uncertainty—but it has also created a unique moment in time for cities to think critically about how they can better support the future of work. Encouraging automation while reskilling, diversifying our workforce, and being more intentional in developing inclusive workplaces will improve outcomes, strengthen local economies, and create smarter cities as we move into a post-pandemic era.