Recent data suggests that about 7.4 million workers were displaced between January 2013 and December 2015. That's down from 9.5 million between 2011-2013, reflecting improving economic conditions.
Freelance platforms, such as Uber, Lyft and TaskRabbit, can be thanked in part for the improvement. By providing sustainable alternatives to traditional "jobs," such platforms are prime for reintegrating people into the workforce. For example, experienced machine operators who have been displaced can work remotely as training specialists, instructing their replacements when factories relocate.
But there are still plenty of people being left behind by technological progress. And it's not always possible for platforms to simply apply workers' capabilities from a previous job to the next. Instead, the majority of workers will need to "reskill" as the job market evolves. Rob Kaplan, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, recently noted that, "As technology increasingly disrupts various types of jobs—and challenges whole industries—the need for workers to be trained and retrained during their careers is likely to substantially increase in the years ahead."
The problem with his proposal? We're not taking advantage of the full potential of "reskilling" workers. Conversations and solutions around job displacement are often limited for two reasons: 1) They focus exclusively on traditional jobs rather than "deconstructed" work; and 2) They focus on regional partnerships, rather than considering the global work ecosystem. Important solutions require seeing beyond "jobs" and beyond localities; some of the most intriguing solutions involve both working together.
A typical argument about the future of work is that employers, schools and universities in a particular region must prepare local workers for new jobs. For example, Kaplan noted, "Ultimately skills-training partnerships must be created locally," and "Business leaders can take the initiative to work with local high schools, colleges and community-based organizations to develop curricula that would produce candidates with the skills needed to fill job openings."
However, is local coordination for traditional jobs truly the recipe that works? Is the local recipe the only one that works?
Work Deconstruction and Worker Globalization
According to Rusty Justice, the answer is no. Justice is a Kentucky mining veteran who co-founded a company called Bit Source to retrain coal miners into programmers. He observed that miners are accustomed to deep focus, team play and working with complex engineering technology. "Coal miners are really technology workers who get dirty," Justice says. And he's not alone in his thinking: A recent WIRED article revealed that Justice got 950 applications for his first 11 positions.
How did he come to this alternative solution to job displacement? First, Justice deconstructed the job of a coal miner to reveal that much of the work overlapped with the work of computer coders. Deconstruction reveals how to reskill with more precision, augmenting coal miner skills just enough to fit the closely-related job of computer coder. This is very different from trying to convert coal miners to qualify for available local jobs (such as in-home care or retail management) that may be quite different. Second, unlike coal mining, coding can be done remotely. Former coal miners now qualify not only for local jobs, but can tap a global work ecosystem through coding platforms like Freelancer.
Innovative solutions often require both work deconstruction and tapping the global work ecosystem.
The Human Element Behind "Artificial" Intelligence
In a recent article, I suggested that displaced workers who are experts at manufacturing or other skills might find future work as remote training managers for their replacements. But those workers could also find work as trainers of the artificial intelligence (AI) that will guide robotic automation.
Often, AI is only partially "artificial." Behind the AI are often individual employees, such as Kala, a mother in Bangalore, India who spends hours every week identifying questionable content for sites like YouTube and Facebook. Her job is not only to quickly remove such content, but also to help train the AI of tech companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft to better recognize such content.
If we want to create sustainable solutions to blue collar job loss, we need to think longer-term. HR professionals, business leaders, policy makers and workers should acknowledge local reskilling for jobs as a vital solution—but it's only one solution. Complete solutions require integrating new innovations and new definitions of "work."