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Business leaders pointed to high-tech job training and tools like artificial intelligence as possible solutions to the historic shortage of workers.
Governors from around the country got a picture recently of just how historic the nation’s shortage of workers is.
To deal with the challenge, business leaders urged governors to take a number of steps, including embracing technology as a career path and as a way to do the same amount of work with fewer people.
The number of American workers has essentially grown steadily through the nation’s entire history, increasing between 6 to 10 million every five years, Microsoft Vice Chair and President Brad Smith said during a workforce discussion at the National Governors Association on Saturday.
The next five years tell a different story. The pool of workers is projected to grow by only a million people–the smallest increase since John Adams was the president of the United States, he said.
“Our economies are going to need to adapt. We will face permanent shortages of nurses and hospitals and people in grocery stores unless we figure out how to manage economies without the growth of human beings to which we've become accustomed,” Smith said.
The issue already has the attention of governors.
Republican Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte pointed to 10 million job openings across the country.
“There are ‘help wanted’ signs everywhere compared to three years ago,” Gianforte said. “There's no topic that's more important than workforce.”
A Brookings Institution report in December noted that according to Bureau of Labor Statistics projections, 1.7 million infrastructure workers are expected to retire or leave their jobs every year between 2021 and 2031 during what it called a “silver tsunami.”
Seventeen million people who hold jobs like electricians, plumbers and transit drivers will have to be replaced over the next decade, the report said. That’s more than the 16.6 million people who worked in the industry last year.
Governors will need to deal with the great resignation, said Ravi Kumar, CEO of the information technology company Cognizant. In addition to the 10 million vacant jobs in the country, 4 million workers a month have been leaving jobs because they see no path for improving their lives, he said.
However, some higher-paying technology jobs could offer opportunities because they do not require four-year degrees and the work can be done remotely from rural areas.
Gianforte said his state worked with Cognizant, as well as Montana companies and colleges, to create a 12-week program called Accelerate Montana to train more people to get higher-paying jobs in technology.
“Now, a couple of years into their job, they’re making well into six figures. It’s changed their livelihood and changed life,” Gianforte said.
“We’ve hired gym instructors, who became Salesforce administrators and product managers,” Kumar said. “We hired veterans. We hired construction workers and we converted them into high-scale technology jobs.''
Still, more needs to be done, Smith said, noting public, private and nonprofit employers spent more on training between 1980 and 2000 than they do now. The focus was teaching workers how to be productive with the new tech of the time: PCs, word processors and email.
“But when we hit the year 2000, employers started disinvesting,” he said, believing employees would figure things out for themselves or find instructional videos on YouTube.
But this year the growth of artificial intelligence could be significant and as transformative as the emergence of smartphones, said Smith.
Microsoft started working with nonprofits to use artificial intelligence to help raise money. “Tasks that would cost a nonprofit $15 [an hour] to perform now cost less than $1” and as low as eight cents, he said.
Jennifer Aument, chief executive of AECOM Global Transportation, which provides engineering, consulting, and project management for infrastructure projects told the governors that the company has been using digital tools to tackle the repetitive activities on major design and major projects. That has allowed the company to accelerate delivery and “meet the complexity and challenges associated with a very demanding and tight workforce,” she said.
However, she said, unintended details in some requests for proposals issued by governments pose barriers to using such tools.
Governors should make sure disincentives aren’t written into RFPs and find ways to incentivize the use of technology.
“I would appeal to the governors in the room to sit down with your teams and just make sure as you move through every element of your government and procurement processes, that there's not outdated language from 1984,” she said.
Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty.
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