Reports and discussions concerning the future of work in the global economy often result in increased apprehension from the public, particularly among those most vulnerable to job displacement. While the tune of a dystopian future in which workers are replaced by automation have waned, evidence pointing to the potential impact of technology on the workforce have largely been inconclusive. Recent studies continue to stress that automation has worsened inequality and stagnated worker’s wages, and that this pattern will persist more drastically in the years to come.
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Given the realm of possible outcomes, one thing is for certain: policymakers and representatives of the education and labor markets need to consider clear strategies to prepare the workforce for the future of work. Researchers at the Urban Institute are optimistic in this regard. In a study that looked at what it would take to achieve quality careers for all workers, the Institute proposed five strategies for making sure more workers in the 21st-century have access to quality careers, including:
- Increasing effective wages. Since wages have stagnated over the last 30 years for low and middle-skilled employees, policymakers should consider approaches for boosting wages (such as raising the hourly minimum, like in Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Seattle, and Washington, DC).
- Improving access to benefits. As the nature of work and traditional employment relationships change, a growing number of people work but don’t receive benefits, such as health insurance. Businesses and industry leaders can play a vital role at this junction by voluntarily giving more workers access to benefits. Examples of this practice include Vermont’s Multiple Employer Plans, where different employers pay into retirement benefits for people with several jobs or part-time jobs. Another example is Starbucks’ free college tuition program.
- Strengthening worker protections and standards. State and local governments should continue exploring strategies to improve labor standards and protections as the nature of work evolves. Take New York City for example, which passed the Freelance Isn’t Free Act in 2017, the only law of its kind to protect the city’s independent workers from wage violations and retaliation.
Researchers are also optimistic about the role postsecondary institutions, particularly community colleges, can play in preparing the workforce for the future economy. Given the role community colleges play in expanding opportunities and mobility for low and mid-income students, these institutions are in the greatest position to respond to the evolving workforce. A recent paper published by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University highlighted this role and identified prevailing trends that will inform the future of workforce development in the U.S. economy. According to the paper, community colleges in the next few years will need to respond to a number of key issues and developments by:
- Supporting students who enroll in noncredit programs and training dislocated workers. Since these programs are more flexible than credit programs and are more attractive to adult learners, they serve as opportunities for at-risk workers to further train and adapt to evolving workforce needs. More colleges should consider how to bridge noncredit programs with credited ones to allow students a way to continue their education and training.
- Fostering entrepreneurial and innovative activities. Colleges will benefit from responding to the overall economic development needs of communities and the nation than simply to the demand by the local private sector. LaGuardia Community College in New York and Lorain County Community College in Ohio, for example, developed business incubators to help start-up local enterprises. Rather than just serving as buildings to house new businesses, these incubators provided technical equipment to aid in product design and development.
Because postsecondary institutions will inevitably play a central role in preparing learners for future careers, researchers at the Aspen Institute’s College of Excellence program published The Workforce Playbook. This guide highlights a set of standards to distinguish colleges that are effective at ensuring that a diverse student body succeed in the labor market post-graduation.
The playbook lays out the essential practices of a high quality community college, such as advancing a vision for talent development and economic mobility, and taking intentional action to support students’ career goals from pre-matriculation through post-graduation.
Jade Richards, Policy Fellow