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Equity is what’s most at stake when ‘robots’ eliminate and transform jobs

The second Future of Work Commission convening at the Design School on the Stanford campus last week focused on the impact of technology on jobs and the nature of work. We sat at a big horseshoe table in the middle of a packed room full of students and observers. The panelists and the people who stayed to testify offered a buffet of data, information, and analysis, much of it relevant to the future of the social enterprise community and the people we serve. Following are some highlights:

Impact of technological change will be uneven. We learned that while there is uncertainty about the overall impact of automation, artificial intelligence, and technology on jobs, we do know that the social impacts of technological change will be uneven, we are ill-prepared to address them, and the greatest impacts are likely to fall on those who already face economic challenges including workers who:

  • have lower income
  • are less able to advance by changing jobs
  • have lower levels of education
  • work in more ‘routine/rule oriented’ tasks, and
  • live in certain geographies (Bay Area least, Central Valley most, LA region in between).

People with more education and financial resources are best positioned to weather technological changes. Because they already specialize in working with people who have challenges in gaining employment, social enterprises can play a role in preparing others for the changes to come.

Also noted was that people with strong interpersonal, relationship, and communication skills, who work in, for example, child and elder care, are generally poorly compensated by the market. These kinds of low-paid service jobs already comprise 80% (and growing) of jobs in the US.

As part of this discussion, several panelists suggested that language can reinforce the way we undervalue certain kinds of work. At our first meeting, it was suggested that talking about ‘low skill’ jobs is inaccurate. A better description is ‘low wage’ jobs; and most of these jobs require a high level of skill when done well. At this meeting, panel members suggested we redefine attributes that we refer to as ‘soft skills’—communication, empathy—as ‘people skills’. They are just as ‘hard’ to do, and sometimes harder, than, say, building a house.

The need to promote complementarity.  Several panelists suggested that we advocate for technology developers to find ways to leverage artificial intelligence and other interventions to complement rather than replace human labor.

Caregiving is undervalued. There was testimony that what has traditionally been considered ‘women’s work’ (child care, elder care), and is typically done by women and especially by women of color, has been generally undervalued and underpaid, and completely uncompensated when done in our own homes.

Policies/solutions suggestions included:

  • All about housing. One panelist suggested that we address housing costs as the biggest issue for the future of work because its’ unaffordability makes commutes too long and costly, drives employers to move out-of-state because their workers can’t afford to live here, and influences commercial rents to rise, making it even tougher on small businesses.
  • EITC Success. How to ensure that more people claim this tax credit which is available to low income workers, when many do not.
  • Supporting transition. We must create a safety net to make the transition easier for those whose jobs are eliminated or changed by technology. While retraining, most people need some income, access to child or elder care, and to skill-building tied to job placement. We need employers fully engaged.
  • Climate change will create jobs in prevention and mitigation – let’s make sure they are well-paid, and that the training is accessible.
  • Expand benefits. A recommendation to provide full-time benefits to part-time workers.
  • Raise compensation. Many panelists noted that we need to find a way to increase total compensation, and the way workers are valued in the market (last session we learned that 35% of adult workers in California earn $15/hour or less). We cannot rely on classic economic theories that wages rise in a tight labor market, given the velocity and nature of the changes at hand. Further points in this discussion:
    • Shifts in power away from workers and to investors/employers when the economy moves from a small-town car company to Uber; from manufacturing to services.
    • The economists testified that we will continue to have tight labor markets for years to come (in light of demographic shifts), and classic economic theory says that should lead to increased wages.
    • But many panelists and Commissioners stated that despite the tight labor markets, wages are not going up significantly for most working people.

Some promising ideas to raise compensation included:

  • Higher compensation for all ‘care’ workers – e.g. more people will be working in child care and elder care, and need to be better compensated so that they can afford the basics of life.
  • Tech can enable positive change: home care workers could do more to contribute information to the health management system (using tech), and thus add more value – another way to drive toward higher wages.
  • Encourage employers to consider individuals who have not traditionally filled certain jobs, and address discrimination and bias that have kept them out: (e.g., women and people of color in advanced manufacturing).
  • Elevate worker interests/voice/organizing to increase compensation.
  • Worker’s interests and business innovation do not have to conflict:
    • Surveying ‘gig’ workers — more concern about the right to organize and bargain than classification status (e.g. as ‘employees’ or ‘contractors’).
    • Encourage/incent investors to set minimum standards related to worker voice and find new ways to define worker value (‘assets’) differently so that companies are motivated to provide higher wages, and total compensation packages.

Our employment social enterprise community has a critical role to play in both educating employers about the value and talent of the workforce we serve and preparing that workforce for the new jobs of the future. I can’t think of a more committed group of people to take on that challenge.

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