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The United States Congress Confronts the Future of Work

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Bill Brantley
February 16, 2020

On January 15, 2020, Congresspersons Bryan Steil (R-WI) and Lisa Rochester (D-DE) launched the Congressional Future of Work Caucus. Nineteen members of Congress have joined the caucus since its inception. In a joint statement, Steil and Rochester explain the purpose of the caucus:

“The future of work depends on us working together now. Technology, manufacturing and jobs are changing. We must be proactive and take advantage of the opportunities ahead of us. Among other issues, we’ll examine how to create effective skills programs, promote growth within emerging industries and help workers access good paying jobs. These are priorities to families in Wisconsin and Delaware, and everywhere in between. We are excited to get to work with our colleagues and find innovative solutions to help workers and grow the economy,”

I was interested in issues regarding the future of work back in the late 80’s after observing how the personal computer (PC) changed the workplace. In describing how the early PCs increased worker productivity, I tell students how I used WordPerfect macros to automate my work. When I was an environmental paralegal for the Commonwealth of Kentucky, I had to prepare and file numerous collection documents. Instead of spending hours using a typewriter to fill out the court forms, I recreated the legal documents as WordPerfect templates. Then it was a simple matter to input the defendant’s name, address and the penalties into a macro. Push the, “Enter,” button and all my documents printed in five minutes.

When our office was hooked up to the Internet, I completed my legal research tasks in a tenth of the time it took working with the books in the legal library. Learning about databases opened many doors for me in the workplace. Continually teaching myself the latest technologies has helped me move from being a paralegal to an IT project manager to my current job as a senior training and development specialist. I’ve seen the power of continually reinventing my skills, knowledge and abilities.

Helping the workforce reinvent itself is not only the concern of the Future of Work Caucus. The House Education and Labor Committee is holding hearings on the ability of workforce programs to prepare workers as automation technology permeates the workplace. According to Representative Susan Davis (D-CA), “[W]e spend only about 0.1% of our GDP [gross domestic product] on workforce development programs, compared to an average of 0.6% in our peer industrialized nations. And while the United States labor force has grown by roughly half over the past four decades, federal investment in workforce development has fallen by two-thirds.”

It is not only that some jobs will be replaced by automation, but the new technologies will also create new jobs. The Deloitte Center for Government Insights, in a 2019 report, described eleven new government jobs of the future. For example, the Talent Cloud Coordinator uses online technologies to build, “A lean and agile central workforce that can work across multiple agencies and geographies.” The Talent Cloud Coordinator helps organizations fill their immediate employee needs for either long-term assignments or short-term projects. At the same time, the Talent Cloud Coordinator is a career advisor for workers by suggesting training resources for the members of the talent cloud.

In the other ten government jobs of the future, Deloitte demonstrates how workers use automation and artificial intelligence to augment the employee’s decisionmaking skills and creativity. For example, robotic process automation (RPA) uses artificial intelligence to automate the routine, predictable parts of work. Much like my WordPerfect macros, but with much more able to adapt to changing task requirements, RPA software can significantly increase the worker’s productivity. However, RPA requires the worker to be a designer of processes rather than just working in processes. Workers will need new skills to take advantage of the opportunities offered by automation.

Helping workers build new skills will necessitate a significant overhaul of the United States workforce development system. As Seth Harris, a deputy Secretary of Labor under President Obama, observes, “The workforce development system’s patchwork design consists of a long list of programs dedicated to particular populations of workers. Workers who are not in the specified categories are not served by these programs. Workers ineligible for one program may be able to secure services from other programs, but large numbers of workers cannot find a place in any of these programs, including workers at risk of displacement in the near future who may not be currently unemployed.

The Future of Work Caucus is a good start in reinventing the workforce development system to help us stay competitive in the age of automation and artificial intelligence.

Author: Bill Brantley teaches at the University of Louisville and the University of Maryland. He also works as a Federal employee for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the views of his employers. You can reach him at http://billbrantley.com.

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