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The politics of automation: Learning to embrace disruption

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by Rick Lazio, Senior Vice President at alliantgroup and Former U.S. Congressman
September 10, 2019 | published in Plant Services


Automation has been a
prime topic in our nation’s political discourse in recent years. As the common
doom-and-gloom narrative goes, the rise of automation and corresponding
technologies such as AI, robotics, and the internet of things will spell the
end of work as we know it, leading to the disruption of labor markets and the
displacement of millions of workers.

There is some measure of truth in these
predictions, with numerous studies highlighting specific jobs and skill sets
that will be automated out of existence. According to a study from the McKinsey
Global Institute, occupations that perform “physical activities in highly structured
and predictable work environments” (i.e., clerical work, retail, physical
labor, etc.) are the most susceptible to automation – and the disappearance of
these jobs will have long-term economic consequences. MGI notes that these
activities account for an estimated 51% of work taking place in the U.S.
economy – and almost $2.7 trillion in wages.

However, despite the narrative of inevitable job
loss and eroding economic opportunity, there is a path forward for American
workers. But it will require reframing the current debate on automation and
providing our workforce with the skills needed to succeed in the emerging STEM


Leveraging automation:
The real policy debate

At the moment, debate seems to be centered on weighing the pros and cons of globalization and automation, as if we can realistically turn back the clock on such forces. When it comes to technology and innovation, the river ultimately runs one way. It’s a question of when, not if, these technologies are adopted en masse – and rather than debating regressive policies that cling to the past to protect soon-to-be-obsolete occupations, our focus should be on how we can best leverage automation to boost productivity, increase economic opportunity, and stimulate growth.

To do this, we must ultimately end the skills
gap – a massive endeavor that will require broad policy reforms and heavy
investment from the public and private sectors.


Revamping the workforce

As automation and technology change the nature of work from physical to technical labor, as manufacturing jobs transition from physical assembly-line occupations to those tied to supporting automation and robotics, a strong STEM skill set will be of the utmost importance in the new economy.

Unfortunately, this skill set is exactly what
our workforce lacks at the moment. In recent years, the skills gap has received
much attention, and rightfully so. The Smithsonian Science Education Center has
projected that 2.4 million STEM jobs have gone unfilled within our economy,
highlighting a surplus of emerging jobs but a shortage in workers with the
right skills to fill those positions.

Needless to say, this is a troubling development
considering technological trends and one that would be devastating to American
workers. Without a modernized workforce, our nation will not be as competitive
or productive, putting overall economic growth and national prosperity at risk.

So how do we avoid this future and harness these
technologies for the good of the economy and the workforce? Education and
retraining will be key – and this will require some commonsense reforms.


Education reform:
Building a foundation in STEM

The best way to expand the technical labor pool is to provide people entering the workforce with a strong STEM background. That ultimately starts with putting a higher emphasis on STEM education in K-12 schools and in encouraging students to pursue STEM degrees and careers.

The nation’s woes in the area of STEM education
are well-documented. As noted by my colleague Dhaval Jadav in an article from
The Hill, according to the Pew Research Center, in 2015 the U.S. placed 38th in
math and 24th in science out of 71 other participating nations in the PISA, the
largest cross-national test to measure reading ability as well as math and
science literacy. Among the 35 members of the Organization for Economic
Cooperation and Development, which sponsors the PISA initiative, the U.S.
ranked 30th in math and 19th in science.

Clearly, these statistics illustrate that we’re
not where we need to be in building a strong educational foundation in STEM. To
ensure that the next generation of workers is not left behind in the emerging
economy, the education system must be reformed to put STEM skills front and

A good place to start would be ensuring that
every school in America offers foundational STEM courses such as computer
science, chemistry, and algebra. As noted in a 2017 opinion piece in U.S. News
& World Report, the emergence of so-called “STEM deserts” has greatly
limited access to a good STEM education to students in urban and rural
communities. Contributor Matthew Randazzo, CEO of the National Math and Science
Initiative, wrote that “more than half of U.S. high schools do not offer
calculus, 4 in 10 do not offer physics (and) more than 1 in 4 do not offer
chemistry.” That will obviously need to change if we are to add more technical
talent to the workforce.


Retaining programs and
lifelong learning

In addition to providing the right skills to individuals who are just entering the workforce, there is much that can and needs to be done to ensure that those displaced by automation are able to remain employed in the emerging economy. For displaced workers from the hardest-hit sectors of the economy, public- and private-sector training and retraining programs can go a long way in maintaining a skilled technical workforce while ensuring better economic opportunities for displaced workers.

When we think of the education system in this
country, there is a tendency to think just of primary and secondary education.
In reality, technology is constantly evolving and requires workers to learn new
skills to keep pace. As such, learning should be a lifelong experience, with
public and privately funded programs to ensure workers always have the skills
needed to be successful.

As businesses live in this world and know the
skills that are needed to keep pace, it would make sense for the private sector
to take the lead – but with some financial assistance from the government. To
incentivize the creation of retraining programs for displaced workers (or the
creation of internships and apprenticeships for those beginning their careers),
a smart policy would be to entice those companies that are capable of training
their workers with tax credits and incentives, thereby providing an extra
benefit for those companies that are doing right by their workers and our
economy at large.

Despite the prevailing narrative, automation can
indeed be a force for good and empower economic opportunity in our nation – but
this can only occur if we do our part and give workers the skills they need to
harness and leverage the power of these new technologies.

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Rick Lazio is a former U.S. Representative from New York who served four terms in Congress from 1993-2001. As alliantgroup’s senior vice president, Lazio has continued his support of mid-market businesses, brokering his insight and experience in both the public and private sectors to provide strong incentives for job growth as well as leveraging his extensive knowledge on cybersecurity regulations for the benefit of the firm’s clients.