It is not technology that will steal your job – Thomas Kochan

Thomas Kochan, MIT Sloan professor & co-founder, Employment Policy Research Network.

From The Irish Times 

The future of work is in hot debate all over the world. The World Economic Forum, the ILO, the International Confederation of Trade Unions, consulting firms, and universities like MIT have task forces asking what work will look like in the years ahead.

There are two problems with much of these debates. The first is an over-fixation with technology. The second is the view that technology has a trajectory all its own as if there is some iron law of physics that will determine its shape and effects. I challenge both of these premises: Technology will of course be important; it is one of the big “megatrends” that will influence work of the future. But how it, and four other megatrends I will outline below will influence the future depends on the actions we take now. So I want to re-frame discussion in forums about the future of work from one of predicting the consequences of megatrends to one of how to engage the megatrends to produce better work, more inclusive societies, and a broader sharing of future prosperity.

Let’s start with Technology.

Futurists are spending too much time debating whether “robots will eat all our jobs” or don’t worry, like technological revolutions that came before, enough new jobs will be created to replace the ones lost. It’s time to move on to figure out what needs to be done to update public policies, labour market institutions, and workplace practices to put technological changes to good use. I propose the following elements of a proactive strategy for doing so.

1. Train Before New Technologies Hit the Workplace.

The consensus recommendation of just about everyone studying changing technology is to retrain workers who are most at risk. Too often, however, the call is for retraining when workers are displaced. That’s too late. Instead we will need massive government and private sector investments in continuous training to ensure workers have the skills needed to engage new technologies before they appear at the workplace door.

2. Integrate Design of Technology and Redesign of Work by Engaging the Workforce.

Years of research tell us the best returns to technology are achieved when it is integrated with redesign of work practices, not by designing technology first and treating workforce issues as something to address later in the implementation process. Yet this lesson is often ignored, only to repeat the disastrous results of over automating. Witness the mess Elon Musk made of trying to create the most automated auto plant in the world. Only after he couldn’t get enough new cars out the door did he have to admit he underestimated the importance of the workforce.

3. Compensate and Assist those who are Displaced.

Some workers will lose their jobs and be displaced. They need to be compensated fairly and provided adjustment assistance to avoid creating another generation of “winners and losers.”

Globalisation: The wave of globalisation that has accelerated since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 has created an enormous gulf between winners and losers. Brexit, Trump, and the ensuing trade wars are manifestations of expanding trade without attending to its effects on workers and communities. But we can’t solve this problem with trade wars, isolationist strategies, or empty promises to bring back old-style factory jobs. The better option is to put advances in technology to work to build the next generation manufacturing industries, processes, and jobs, some of which can be produced locally in maker spaces using modern digital fabrication tools. These investments need to be combined with significant regional economic development, infrastructure, and education that offer the best chances of rebuilding communities hardest hit by the most recent wave of globalisation.

Read the full post at The Irish Times.

Thomas Kochan is the George Maverick Bunker Professor of Management, a Professor of Work and Employment Research, and the CoDirector of the MIT Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

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