Amid Crisis, Mayors Can Build a Workforce for the Second Machine Age

Now is the time for mayors to help their residents prepare for a more automated economy.

Now is the time for mayors to help their residents prepare for a more automated economy. SHUTTERSTOCK


Connecting state and local government leaders

COMMENTARY | The economic fallout of Covid-19 combined with growing automation is poised to transform millions of jobs nationwide. Mayors should start developing plans to create a more adaptable workforce for a rapidly changing economy.

Send cash. That’s the response U.S. government leaders have taken to help Americans through the coronavirus pandemic. A response that echoes the signature policy proposal of former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who proposed a $1,000 guaranteed monthly income as the solution to growing automation in the workforce.

While broad-based economic stimulus will continue to be needed to help Americans recover from the current crisis, preparing millions of people nationwide for the long-term challenges posed by a more automated economy will require more than just sending money.  And the nation can’t afford to wait for the federal government to tackle the growing challenge. Mayors across the country should take the lead—not necessarily with plans for universal basic income, but by making bold investments in upskilling their workforces.

In recent decades, national and local leaders were far too slow to help workers affected most by automation and globalization. The forces of automation that displaced millions of factory jobs over the past two decades are now on the cusp of bringing enormous changes to tens of millions of jobs in other key parts of the economy—from office administrators and medical technicians to food prep workers and retail salespeople. This new wave of automation will reshape how people work in cities across the United States, creating a Second Machine Age—and the coronavirus crisis may serve to accelerate these trends.

Recent studies suggest that at least 36 million American jobs could be displaced by automation. In New York City alone, over 456,000 jobs are highly automatable, according to our research at the Center for an Urban Future. And in cities like Stockton, California, and Greensboro, North Carolina, nearly 30% of all jobs are at high risk of displacement. Automation is also likely to have a disproportionate impact on black and Latinx workers, which risks widening racial income and wealth gaps.

Mayors across the country can act now to prepare their cities for an increasingly automated economy by developing automation preparation plans. Similar to how mayors have led on mitigating the threat of climate change, automation plans will help ensure that those most at risk in an automated economy can keep the jobs they have as occupations are reshaped by technological disruption, or are better prepared for new opportunities in high-growth sectors like tech, health care and the creative industries.

Based on local economic and workforce needs, each city’s plan would include major new investments in upskilling and lifelong learning initiatives designed to expand local training options for incumbent workers. Although many cities have an array of good workforce training programs focused on preparing residents for jobs, most have far too few resources and options aimed at helping current workers navigate a job transition and bolster their skills across the arc of a career.

Similarly, mayors should launch and scale up effective tech-training programs. Demand for skilled tech workers is at an all-time high, and jobs in tech are some of the best paying and likeliest to grow as automation reshapes the economy. Many cities now have access to training programs that have proven highly effective at moving people with limited experience into tech jobs across an array of sectors. The problem is that these programs often serve no more than a few dozen to a few hundred people per year, even in major hubs like New York and San Francisco.

An automation preparation plan should also include a mechanism to help make continuous training more accessible. Often, the time when people most need to upskill is when they’ve lost a job, and it’s especially difficult for lower-income workers to reskill after being displaced due to automation—rather than simply taking the first available job. By establishing city-sponsored, portable lifetime learning accounts, workers would have an easier time making career transitions.  

As mayors confront the current pandemic and consider options to mitigate the damage, investments in skills-building infrastructure will become even more essential. With millions of Americans newly unemployed and whole industries on hold, cities should provide residents with flexible options to retrain for resilient careers as part of an effective recovery strategy.

Some mayors are already taking steps to prepare, although few initiatives focus specifically on incumbent workers. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, who leads the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ automation task force, launched a new program to provide high school graduates with two years of tuition-free public college, helping prepare Seattle youth for a changing economy. And in South Bend, Indiana, former mayor and presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg worked with the Drucker Institute to provide residents with access to digital career-skills resources designed to foster continuous learning.

The major transformations underway will require long-term vision. To ensure workers benefit as new jobs are created and mitigate the disruption as current jobs are lost or transformed, cities should double down on initiatives that align education and training with new economic realities—and make upskilling a centerpiece of an automation preparation plan.

It’s time for more mayors to step up and invest in preparing residents for a more automated economy.

Jonathan Bowles is executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, a New York City–based think tank focused on expanding economic opportunity. Winston C. Fisher is partner at Fisher Brothers and co-chair of the New York City Regional Economic Development Council.

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