Artificial intelligence and machine learning are advancing more rapidly than ever before. An AI system recently defeated the world’s best player of Go, an ancient Chinese strategy game significantly more complex than chess. Driverless cars have logged thousands of hours on public roads. AI means that productivity can continue to increase regardless of levels of employment. If AI disrupts the workforce the way it is projected to, the hardest hit will be low-income communities, which could be at great risk for falling further behind than they already are.
What do we think makes these technological advances different from past ones? This increase in the rate of machine learning means that this wave of technological advancement is much more impactful than previous smaller-scale innovations. It may be the beginning of an exponentially increasing growth curve for technology’s utility and the accompanying decline in the need for human labor. We just don’t feel it yet because we haven’t hit the upswing.
The data supports this: MIT researchers Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee point out a phenomenon they call the “Great Decoupling.” Prior to the year 2000, labor productivity and employment increased together in tandem but, after 2000, they diverged with productivity continuing to increase and employment becoming stagnant (wages diverged and flattened in the 1970s). They attribute a large share of these increases in productivity to technology and argue that, as technology becomes cheaper, workers will continue to be replaced at increasing rates.
These two factors taken together—stagnant employment with increasing productivity and the rapid advancement of machine learning—should be alarming to those focused on career pathways. Pew recently found that experts in the field did not think our current education and workforce training systems were up to the task of adapting to a quickly changing economy. If these systems are not equipped to prepare students and workers with minimal barriers, that leaves the most vulnerable in peril.
Some don’t think there’s reason to be concerned; a recent MIT IDE research brief points out that, despite the advent of the computer and multiple leaps in technology, the employment-to-population ratio has increased during the 20th century. We can’t wait to find out who is right. There’s too much at stake for the marginalized communities we serve to not take this seriously today. The good news is that there is hope. In a recent blog post, Van Ton-Quinlivan discussed how the California Community Colleges system is keeping these rapid changes to our economy at front and center of its strategy. Other programs across the country, such as Employ Milwaukee, are offering accelerated training programs in information technology and other fields to meet market demands more efficiently, as well.
While the work of these organizations is a step in the right direction, we need to do more if we’re going to prepare our skilled workforce for the changing economy.
We need to:
- Acknowledge that the potential for rapid workforce disruption is real and cannot be ignored or downplayed
- Work closely with the business community to be at the forefront of understanding these looming changes and how they will affect specific industries, skills, and jobs
- Rapidly prototype training and education solutions targeted toward marginalized communities to stay ahead of the changes
It will take a major groundswell of new approaches in education and training programs coupled with significant systems change work to keep up. Not only do our current systems need to change, but they need to be rebuilt for continual adaptation to stay relevant. Otherwise, our society’s reckless need for speed in the digital age may lead to a serious bleed of jobs.
Read more blog posts from our ongoing Future of Work series.