The current pandemic is forcing societal change that academics and industry leaders have been describing since at least the 1990s; a change driven by an aging labour pool and automation technology. Phaedra Boinodiris FRSA and Rebecca Kemper argue that our communities need flexible, continuous professional education opportunities that keep our workforce in livable-wage jobs aligned with emergent skill demands.
Covid-19 has challenged our daily routines – jumbling carefully constructed boundaries between the roles that we must fulfill everyday – as a family member, employee and friend. Reading this article we may be confronted with the reality that it is difficult to manage all of our worklife duties and family responsibilities – along with our sanity – at home. The value of remote work capabilities is now more apparent than ever. But it is important to understand that those living in underserved communities that do not have internet access, do not have access to resources such as basic online education, to tele-health, the ability to order (or afford to order) groceries online or the ability to work from home that would allow them to continue safe participation in our economy.
Meanwhile, according to McKinsey, globally more than 30% of activities are technically automatable in six out of 10 current occupations. On average, it is predicted that globally, 400 million people’s jobs will be automated by 2030. In responding to this challenge more workers need to be able to reskill towards computing, robotics and the management of automated systems; many underserved communities are not in the position to make these changes. The US, like many other countries including the UK, remains digitally divided.
Prior to the current crisis, there were many people who had been trying to raise the alarm regarding the dire need to reskill people in a more flexible way, as well as to acquaint workers to hybrid physical-virtual workplace environments. Yet, in the US, 70% of workers believe that their jobs will be unaffected by automation, while all major industry leaders have commented that every job will be affected in some way. Workforce displacement by automation is happening in this century as it did during the first industrial revolution and, as a society, we need to ensure that we can create an equitable future where everyone can participate in our rapidly changing economy.
Currently, some groups are left behind. For example, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) suggests that technological change is more likely to disadvantage women and minorities. According to a recent report from the World Economic Forum, “[w]omen are in the greatest danger of being replaced in the workforce by automation, unless they re-trained for other jobs.” Prior to Covid-19, their research published in 2018 estimated that 57% of the 1.4 million jobs within the US that are held by women will disappear by 2026 because of automation. Katrinell Davis, sociology professor at Florida State University recently concluded that many African Americans are at risk of losing their jobs to automation technologies. This is especially the case now that technological advances in computing and robotics pose unprecedented scale of change, impacting multiple sectors – from fashion to banking and even farming – at the same time.
Unlike the last industrial revolution, this time technological change is so fast and pervasive – especially under a global health crisis – that there may not be sustainable work options for displaced workers to shift into. So how do we construct support systems?
New Collar Skills
Automation technology in the form of artificial intelligence and robotics is making it imperative for us to rethink not only what we are teaching but how we are teaching it. CEO’s from all of the major tech giants have been referencing the need to address ‘new collar skills’, questioning the traditional four-year college degree and demanding proof of credentials.
Rather, society will be looking for ways to flexibly reskill for living wage jobs, and workers will go to informal places of learning like online classes, technology and innovation hubs, and libraries because that is what is affordable for their education needs now. This is not to say that there will not be a role for colleges and universities; these are important centres of knowledge and have been the place where much of the digital revolution was fostered. Holistic education that nurtures an understanding of people, society, and emergent ethical questions surrounding technological innovation are needed more than ever.
However, people cannot be empathetic and critical thinkers if they cannot find livable work and affordable education to secure employment. Business as usual cannot continue on many college campuses. Colleges and universities will need to think much more strategically about where they are allocating their resources if they are to remain nimble in responding to technological innovation, changes in the workplace that students will enter, and the demographics of the country whereby a traditional college-aged cohort will not exist in numbers to sustain all campuses by 2036. In short, they will need to embrace hybrid physical-virtual learning spaces to manage costs, remain operational under rapid environmental change, and best prepare students for the workplaces they are entering.
Everything feels under threat right now; our health, our jobs, securing basic necessities and our capacity to plan for an ever more uncertain future. Yet, there are things each one of can do in a world that can help all of us across nations to prepare for workplace changes underway now.
First, support for teachers and digitized education. Technological change and the current pandemic has hit one of our most needed yet in many nations, economically vulnerable populations: teachers. In many regions in the world, including some US states, students may be shocked to learn how little of their parents’ tax money went towards paying the sometimes below-minimum wage salary of that instructor who helped get you the credentials to get into college or land your first job. Many of these were already underfunded, with many districts unable to afford basic computing resources necessary to prepare students for the 21st century workplace. To respond to pandemic conditions, in the post-secondary sector, educators have been asked to shoulder additional communication traffic, changes in education technology and remote learning with little resources.
Readers can reach out to teachers and college instructors to find out what they need to do their jobs remotely and contact your representatives with these requests. Write to your local education officials to ask how they are planning on supporting continuing workforce education in an increasingly automated, remote-work world. And remember to advocate that instructors, at all levels, are provided living-wages.
You can also take the time to learn about government efforts to bridge the workforce preparation gap. For example, the Office of Education Technology within the US Department of Education launched a micro-credentialing pilot to encourage the opening of new education ecosystems, embracing informal learning settings as places where students can glean these new skills. In this way, students can get authenticated credit for things that they learn in both informal and formal learning settings. These micro-credentials are different from traditional badge programmes that have been used in some tech companies, that often do not translate to other companies. Micro-credentials use blockchain networks to authenticate the identity of both the educatorand the studentand to form a foundation of the system based upon perceived value for all participating members. This means that the student is working hard to get authenticated credentials that are highly portable. Some schools like Arizona State University (ASU) are far ahead in piloting micro-credentials into their educational approach.
Second, we can practice hybrid physical-virtual education at home. There is an increase of free educational resources for parents and teachers to make use of in this time of crisis. For example, in the US context, AmazingEducationalResources.Com has a long well-curated list, that includes museum and aquarium tours from around the world, to games that teach quantum physics. Schools and parents should take this opportunity to review the large plethora of virtual game-based learning applications that exist and begin using them to engage students. There are games that teach everything from language to advanced chemistry. Not all game-based learning is the same, but there are numerous websites like GamesforChange.org that offer reviews. One of our favorites is the National Science Foundation award winning game Sci-Ops: Global Defense, a videogame that introduces students in middle school to Chemistry. The publisher, Plasma Games, donated the resource to teachers across the United States to help them during this Covid-19 crisis.
There are also wonderful ways to engage students in STEM learning using computer code ‘recipes’ for students to create their own applications. IBM has published these resources for teenage students to create an AI-powered Harry Potter Sorting hat or to re-skin Minecraft such that students use the game to teach others about diseases. There are kits that can introduce children to cloud computing, Internet of Things to create smart clothing, and chatbots that you can alter to sense others’ emotions. Take advantage in the change of education space and introduce children to virtual learning that is collaborative and fun.
Traditional video games meant for entertainment can also prove to be wonderful places to learn. Apart from Minecraft, which many coding camps have built learning curriculum upon, games like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey by Ubisoft offers a virtual Discovery tour of Ancient Greece where you can learn not only about what life was like then but also interview some of the key historical figures from the Classical Age of the city of Athens. There are many games that are not just fun but also secretly educational teaching physics principles, supply chain management, algebra, world history, geography, sustainability and more.
Third, community education institutions, including libraries, museums, and community centres need greater public support. With social distancing measures in place, informal learning environments and continuing education opportunities are currently unavailable to the public in their traditional forms. Communities can support these organisations – through donations, supporting tax levies and providing their time – to continuously convert their educational content into remotely accessible forms. These institutions could become recognised as micro-credentialing partners in a broader education ecosystem; enabling people to get re-skilled and get credit for the skills and competencies that they are learning.
Finally, we need to treat the internet as a critical public utility. Disagreement over how to classify internet access as either an amenity or as a utility has been contentious. Remote working needs under Covid-19 point to broadband access as being a critical utility for the continuance of our economy. Support your local and state government’s efforts to build out their own broadband infrastructures to ensure everyone has access to our economy. Wherever you live, take the time to ask your representatives if they will join in the efforts to have private broadband companies suspend barriers to public connectivity – for example, data caps, data throttling and associated fees – given the current outbreak.
As we bravely face another week of figuring out how we are going to keep our families – and ourselves – safe and engaged, many of us can take the time to consider how we can support each other in creating an accessible, livable future for everyone in our society. Crises can be helpful in reprioritising what really matters; we can respond to this crisis to work for an equitable future for all.
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Phaedra Boinodiris FRSA has focused on inclusion in technology since 1999. She holds five patents and has served on the leadership team of IBM’s Academy of Technology and is currently pursuing her PhD in AI and Ethics.
Rebecca F. Kemper is a researcher at the Center of Science and Industry in Columbus, Ohio. Her research is focused upon the intersections of the knowledge-based economy, creative placemaking, and social justice concerns. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Ohio State University’s Knowlton School