Thursday, February 2, 2017

Strong Back Days are History

A recent article from Fox News caught my eye for a couple of reasons. The headline was Do the math: Education is the most effective jobs program. Let's invest in it. It lead with the thought that "Democrats and Republicans agree," and that is always an eye-catcher.  But, it immediately noted that a huge threat to American jobs will be technology, "millions of American jobs could be wiped out by automation in the next 20 years." This according to a report from the White House. It concludes that "between 9 and 47 percent of current jobs across the country are threatened" with "most of those jobs concentrated among lower-paid, lower-skilled, and less-educated workers.” 

Sorry, did you say 47%? Why yes they did. There is an old saw about the first day of professional school (I have heard it regarding lawyers, doctors, engineers and more). Supposedly, the dean is welcoming new students and says to the audience "look at the person on your left, and now on your right, of them won't be here for graduation," or to that effect. That would be a reduction of one third, or 33%. This prediction is that almost half of the jobs will disappear. And it must be true, the report is from the White House! 

I have held jobs that are likely to disappear beneath this technology tsunami. I was a truck driver, a pizza maker, a cook, a delivery driver, and a grocery stocker. I spent a day carrying "hod," a week carrying shingles onto roofs, and a week waiting tables. I even had one job retrieving data from a database, comparing it to data in two other incompatible databases, and reconciling inventory disparities manually. I suspect that all of these may be technology vulnerable. 

The disappearance of jobs, and the coming waive of technology is a drum I have been beating for the last couple of years: Artificial Intelligence in our World, Attorneys Obsolete,  How will Attorneys (or any of us) Adapt. Change is coming to our economy on a scale that has only happened once before in modern times, the Industrial Revolution. I have questioned whether the coming technology revolution will be violent, but the fact is it will be a revolution in any event.

Because of this coming technology apocalypse, according to the White House report, "American workers will need to be prepared with the education and training that can help them continue to succeed." And, we are not talking about college alone, the focus is on the breadth and depth of the American education system, from beginning to end. And, as usual, it appears more financial resources will be required. At schools in which I have delivered lectures there is no shortage of computers, white boards, projectors, televisions, and other technology. And yet, the students are no better prepared today than prior to the wheelbarrows of cash America has dumped into schools in recent years.  

However, the White House conclusion is that billions of dollars must be invested to "improve kindergarten-12th grade schools and make college more accessible and affordable." This conclusion is built upon the premise that "having an educated workforce is how the United States got to be the leading economic engine on the globe and it’s how we can keep the engine roaring." The days of achieving the American Dream solely through "a strong back and strong arms" are over. 

The article leads with two strong indicators of credibility: a White House report, and a theme consistent with my former writing and conclusions (agree with people and they are likely to agree with you). These are definitely geared to me taking the article seriously. But then, a few paragraphs in, the Fox article quotes a "2015 report from Ball State University." Well, quoting my alma mater is not going to hurt your credibility either, and so on I read. 

The Ball State report documents that "almost 88 percent of job losses in manufacturing in recent years can be attributable to productivity growth,” that is "to automation." While there is a tendency to point at foreign markets and "outsourcing," the vast majority of loss is said to be technology related. This will be true moving forward with self-driving cars and trucks, robotic vacuum cleaners, automated fast food and more. Those lost jobs for truck drivers and at fast food counters will be significant, and local. They will not be "exported" or "outsourced," they will be antiquated and eliminated. 

Fox notes that jobs will increasingly "require an education beyond high school." Of course that may not be an absolute if the only focus of "education" is schooling. There are a great many jobs that will still require skills outside of the college curriculum. I contend that we will need plumbers, electricians, landscapers, handy persons and more. These may require schooling, but in many instances may continue to be trades that can be learned on-the-job. Still, it is "education," but perhaps we need to think of more than the college angle pushed in the White House report? 

Is everyone ready for college? That is clearly a no. I was invited a couple of years ago to speak about the Constitution at a high school class. The occasion was Law Day, and visiting high schools for that is one of my favorite distractions. Working with young people is inspiring and often educational. When I arrived, early, I had a few minutes with the teacher. As we discussed some key Constitutional points, she interrupted me. She wanted me to know "these are not the college students." I was floored. She assured me that "they are certainly smart enough, but they have no interest" in that future. 

The Fox article continues, pointing out that America is already in the midst of a period of notable unemployment or underemployment. We hear about underemployment when people are working in jobs that do not require their level of skills or education. Statistics are cited in support of the conclusion that "we have not done enough to provide millions of children – particularly low-income children in severely underfunded schools – with a quality elementary and secondary education and made it possible for them to go to college." The fault is laid squarely upon our collective doorstep. America has just not spent enough money. Fox concludes that it is our education process that has failed. 

Fox posits that this failure is tied to problems with alcoholism, drug overdose, and death. There is evidence of a disproportionate impact of these on people with less education. While the statistics provided on these points are disturbing, there is little presented in terms of a direct correlation between the statistics and either education or automation. It does not change that death tolls are rising, related to these causes, but where is the proof that these are related to the technology revolution and its affect upon jobs?

A Pennsylvania State professor's conclusion may tie the various statistics together. Her logic path is that the rising death rates are demonstrably in "counties that experienced high unemployment and economic distress." These are areas in which there is a "large working class population." She concludes that this provides the link. Areas with populations that lack education are experiencing higher rates of "despair," and thus these tragically significant demonstrations of substance abuse and death. 

If she is correct, then the situation may be exacerbated as technology displaces increasing volumes of American workers. And, unfortunately, there seems to be little appreciation of the implications. For example, while there is lobbying for better pay and benefits for fast food workers, that industry is marching toward automation to replace those workers instead. There are kiosks coming for ordering, robots coming to cook, and even predictions that droids will soon do the delivering. Higher wage costs and demands are not likely to discourage business from automating. So, there is a conflict between people seeking a living wage today and perhaps driving themselves into the unemployed tomorrow. 

Will the alternative to today's wages be any more sufficient? Will some form of support while unemployed be more fulfilling than the wages of today? Perhaps, if there is some process of education that prepares these displaced workers with a future that is challenging and rewarding. But what if the future that results is instead simply unemployment and the "despair" mentioned by the Fox article? There are arguments that Universal Income is the answer; that economic utopianism is not only possible but imminent. But how will a government, particularly a government already $20 trillion in debt (yes, the national debt from 250 years as a country doubled in the last 8 years to $20 trillion), find the funds to pay universal income to everyone?

The key point take-aways form this post are critical. First, when looking for sound data, look to my alma mater, Ball State. Second, always take solace in opinions that agree with you. No, those are not the key points, but it is not often that I can brag on Ball State (they actually have a football team, but you have never seen them ranked). 

The real key take-away is education is our future. This is likely true individually and collectively. Education does not have to be college. There will be room in this economy for many who have skills, and our education system needs to remember that vocational opportunities need to exist to prepare people for the wealth of jobs that will remain, will be necessary, even beyond the 20 year forecast of the White House Report. Those skills used to be taught in high schools, and we would do well to embrace that model again with wood and metal shops, and more. 

The future is coming for us all. What we do today to respond to the coming wave of technology and progress will define our economy for years to come. 


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