Viewpoint: Meeting automation head-on

By Nancy Gleason


Concerns about the negative impact of globalization and unfair trade distract us from the real issue. Re-educating adults for a changing global economy is what we should be focusing on to ensure jobs in the future. Automation of knowledge, known as the fourth industrial revolution, is changing your job. The good news is that Mainers are resilient and creative, two key skills for this emerging shift in how we live and work.

The automation economy is different from anything we have seen. It is about the computerization of human thinking through technologies such as augmented reality, 3D printing, blockchain, the internet of things, drones and artificial intelligence. If you lack flexibility, creativity, judgment and discernment, you are likely going to be unemployed in the medium-term regardless of trade tariffs and attempts to ebb the negative impacts of globalization. Within the next 20-30 years, if it can be offshored, a machine can do it. Which one took your job won’t matter. The American employee has to change as a result.

The jobs that are emerging demand skills unlike those in which Americans have traditionally been trained. Our education system, especially higher education, needs to adapt. Adults need to up-skill. Take a class. Earn a new certificate. Learn something new, often. That is where emphasis should be in our domestic policy. We cannot rely on jobs of yesterday. We need to be planning for jobs of tomorrow.

In the United States, the slow trickle of job loss since the 1980s of 7 million manufacturing jobs is just the tip of the iceberg. The McKinsey Global Institute points out that by 2050, 60.6 million employees will be affected by automation in the United States. This makes up 46 percent of the workforce. In the health care and social assistance sector, 37 percent of the industry has the potential to be automated, affecting 6.6 million U.S. employees. For the U.S. retail trade sector, 53 percent of work being done has the potential to be automated, representing 8.0 million employees. Our jobs are going to change.

New England is starting to respond but Maine continues to lag behind its neighbors. Maine remains dependent on agriculture, which is expected to be hit hard by automation in the next 10-20 years. In Maine there is a lack of investment in and availability of STEM-related (Science Technology Economics and Math) jobs and human capital. This will make it difficult for Mainers to reap the benefits of this new economy.

For example, there is now electronic monitoring of fishing practices. Those working in the industry need to have the tech savvy to use these new technologies in order to participate. Similarly, much of logging is now automated and computer-based. Drones play a key role in monitoring and verification practices. We need more training on how to use these technologies in the short-term to keep up.

There are options available to learn now things, to “up-skill”. We need churches, temples, mosques and community centers to hold retraining courses. We need emotional support, not just financial support, for those who have to reskill. Local libraries will be essential resources, especially for computer literacy and coding programs.

Our community colleges are on the frontlines. Community colleges offer valuable programs in automotive technology and digital graphic design, both areas where there will be significant job demand. The University of New England is doing innovative work in experiential learning, international exposure and virtual campuses. We need to fund them much more. And those in our Maine communities need to encourage each other to take advantage of these resources.

Online education will be an important element in retraining today’s workers, and up-skilling employees. Face-to-face education with a liberal arts focus is still best, but remains expensive and time consuming. There are exciting, free alternatives to traditional forms of education.

LinkedIn has free short courses anyone can access. There are hundreds of certificates, badges, mini-degrees that you can pursue. MIT and EdEx have launched free MicroMaster’s degrees that are working to increase the accessibility of higher education in automation-relevant work. This includes statistics and data science, supply chain management and development policy. Americans should be encouraged to take these courses and shift their mindsets to be lifelong learners.

Anyone can take a free MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). You can add it to your resume when you are done.

Access and affordability across gender and socio-economic lines are key to re-skilling. The difference in gender demands should receive special attention. Women need to support each other. Take a class together. Motivate each other and ask each other questions. Mainers can paint, mold, cook and weave just about anything. The next step is to think about how you can apply that knowledge to a new industry.

The United States is now playing catch up compared to other nations. Debates on trade and globalization, while important, are distractions in this new context. It is up to state and city leaders to collaborate with industry and higher education to push the public discourse and actions forward. Messaging from leaders needs to emphasize what Americans have always been good at, entrepreneurialism in its purest sense, getting involved in new ideas.

Nancy Gleason, a Maine native, is director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning and senior lecturer of global affairs at Yale-NUS College in Singapore. Her research covers higher education pedagogy and policy transformations in the context of the automation economy and climate change.

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