Job disruption as a result of automation and new technologies accelerated dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, it is clearer than ever that we need to examine how forward-thinking policies might catalyze technological innovation so that it provides good jobs and promotes equitable economic growth. We need not presume that technology will work against workers. Unlike our early approach to the Internet, where policymakers stood back and let the market set the objectives, now is the time to advance good policy as these technologies grow in commercial application. An inclusive economy is central to a strong democracy, as well as a driver of economic growth and worker wellbeing.
It is important to start with a focus on the 106 million workers, almost 70 percent of the American labor market, without four-year college degrees. These workers are disproportionately people of color. So that they are not left out of the gains of a digital economy, we need to leverage policy to steer the commercialization of technology to create jobs that pay well, offer security and dignity, and provide real opportunities for advancement.
Last year, the Markle Foundation initiated The Rework America Alliance—an unprecedented nationwide collaboration of unions, employers, civil rights and non-profit organizations, and philanthropy, to enable unemployed and low-wage workers to emerge from this crisis stronger.[ii] Our research, conducted to support the work of the Alliance, shows that, even amid massive disruption, there exist meaningful pathways to good jobs for people without college degrees. We identify 77 “gateway” occupations that are affected by technology and that could provide workers with long-term economic security.[iii]We show that there is a large pool of workers who have the experience that makes them ideal candidates for these occupations. And where there is an existing skill shortfall, these workers can be trained to acquire needed additional skills. Alongside these optimistic findings, however, our research also shows that the challenges are real—without targeted interventions and innovative policies, there simply will not be enough jobs that recognize the potential of workers without college degrees.
If there is an over-arching message from our research, it is that we need to do more to steer the commercialization of new and emerging technologies toward the creation of good jobs, including within small- and medium-sized businesses. New technologies are often seen as threatening to employment. In fact, with the right structures, systems, and policies, we can leverage technology to create jobs, advance equity in the labor market, and ensure shared prosperity.
Many of the “gateway” occupations we identify—occupations that could provide well-paying jobs without requiring college degrees—are in sectors likely to be impacted by the commercialization of new technologies. These technologies include artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and 3D printing, and will impact industries ranging from aerospace to energy generation. The impact of these technologies on jobs is not pre-determined: We can develop policies that will spur innovation and lead to job creation and equitable economic growth.
Our current exploration identifies several policy options to achieve these goals. These include actions to prevent market consolidation and encourage distributed business models; investments in open standards, open data, and open architecture; support for product development processes that enable inclusive participation; tax incentives for employers who invest in adult training and have equitable employment practices; initiating new educational institutions and training curricula; providing access and investments in training—and much more. We need incentives so that many more researchers and policymakers will focus on this challenge so we can identify the strongest policies that will achieve economic growth in tandem with widespread economic benefit.
3D printing—also referred to as additive manufacturing—is an example of a technology ready for scaled commercialization. According to a 2017 report by A.T. Kearney, 3D printing is “poised to disrupt and redistribute $4 to 6 trillion of the global economy in the next five to ten years, but where that value goes depends entirely on decisions of key leaders in both the public and private sectors.”[iv]The report argues that the technology has the capacity to revitalize manufacturing in the United States, and I would add that it will disrupt existing supply chains and transport.
Whether 3D printing creates jobs and helps revitalize manufacturing, and with it communities, depends on our choices. One thing is certain: We cannot rely solely on policies created for twentieth century realities. We require new strategies that consider the rapidly changing nature of work, and the capacities as well as limitations of new technologies. Innovation in technology requires innovation in technology policy. We need not only updated policies, but new ways of thinking about policy.
Infrastructure and green technology investments, too, have the potential to produce a large number of good-paying jobs in the short term, while also supporting research, development, and entrepreneurial ventures that will grow these jobs in the long term. These jobs can be better than those in the past in part due to the accelerating pace of technology and automation across relevant industries.
Rana Faroor of the Financial Times puts it colorfully: “Think about vertical farms that grow produce minutes from where people eat it, telehealth and virtual education platforms that eliminate travel costs, and 3D manufacturing that cuts through complex and far-flung supply chains.”[v]All these disruptions can lead to shared participation and economic gain, or they can mean concentrating economic benefit; the difference results from the policy choices we make.
There exists an instructive—and cautionary—precedent to the current situation. In the early 2000s, as the potential of the Internet became clear, I and others called for new approaches to Internet policy to ensure that the network developed in a safe, equitable, and participatory manner.[vi]We know how that played out. Sadly, the many benefits of the digital economy were accompanied by new patterns of dominance, stifled competition, inequity, and social division.
The direction technology can take without the prior adoption of good policy is now well known. We need to make it a priority to ensure that the upside of the commercialization of technology is shared more widely, and that the massive private and public investment pouring into technology does not once again translate into social or economic gains for only a few. We need to invest in all of America, so that everyone can share in our common prosperity.
“Unlocking Experience-Based Job Progressions for Millions of Workers,” Rework America Alliance, June 2, 2021, https://www.mckinsey.com/about-us/covid-response-center/inclusive-economy/unlocking-experience-based-job-progressions-for-millions-of-workers.
[ii]“Rework America Alliance,” Markle, accessed November 10, 2021, https://www.markle.org/alliance.
[iii]“Unlocking Experience-Based Job Progressions for Millions of Workers,” Rework America Alliance, June 2, 2021, https://www.markle.org/sites/default/files/Unlocking-Job-Progressions-Full-Report.pdf.
[iv]“3D Printing: Ensuring Manufacturing Leadership in the 21st Century,” A.T. Kearney, accessed November 10, 2021, https://www.ncsl.org/Portals/1/Documents/fsl/3D_Printing_24659.pdf.
[v]Rana Foroohar, “Why Innovation Could Stop Inflation,” Financial Times, November 7, 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/57bccc8f-e75d-4be6-a92e-96470aa7e7de.
[vi]Zoë Baird and Stefaan Verhulst, “A New Model for Global Internet Governance,” Alfred Herrhausen Society for International Dialogue, accessed November 10, 2021, https://www.markle.org/sites/default/files/ahs_global_internet_gov.pdf, and Zoë Baird, “Governing the Internet: Engaging Government, Business, and Nonprofits,” Foreign Affairs, November/December 2002, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2002-11-01/governing-internet-engaging-government-business-and-nonprofits