Pro­tect­ing work­ers from tech­no­log­i­cal dis­rup­tions

The Fresno Bee - - Opinion - BY SUNIL JOHAL

As heads of the world’s lead­ing economies gath­ered for the Group of 20 sum­mit last week, one of their key ar­eas of fo­cus was the fu­ture of work, with a par­tic­u­lar em­pha­sis on train­ing and skills in the dig­i­tal era. It is no won­der that the is­sue is top of mind. Re­ports of jobs be­ing au­to­mated be­cause of ad­vances in ro­bot­ics and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence are com­mon­place. Es­ti­mates range from less than 5 per­cent of cur­rent jobs be­ing au­to­mated all the way up to 47 per­cent of ex­ist­ing U.S. jobs be­ing ob­so­lete within pos­si­bly the next 10 to 20 years.

Though no­body knows what will hap­pen and when, sig­nals of dig­i­tal dis­rup­tion are ev­ery­where. Gen­eral Mo­tors just an­nounced it will close five North Amer­i­can plants within a year, elim­i­nat­ing up to 14,000 jobs, as part of a re­newed fo­cus on elec­tric and au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle tech­nol­ogy. The au­tomaker’s de­ci­sion has been met with out­rage by politi­cians and union lead­ers in Canada and the United States, out­rage fu­eled by the re­al­iza­tion that gov­ern­ment bailouts of the com­pany in 20082009 did not yield more good­will.

Un­cer­tainty about the fu­ture makes it easy to rely on the sta­tus quo – we don’t ex­pect peo­ple to sprint head­long onto a foggy field, but to move cau­tiously as their next step be­comes clearer. But this slow in­cre­men­tal­ism risks ig­nor­ing the many peo­ple to­day who are ill-served by out­dated so­cial sup­port sys­tems.

Both Canada and the United States are lag­gards when it comes to pub­lic in­vest­ment in adult job seek­ers. U.S. spend­ing on la­bor mar­ket pro­grams as a per­cent­age of gross do­mes­tic prod­uct, which in­cludes train­ing, un­em­ploy­ment ben­e­fits and hir­ing sub­si­dies, is se­cond-low­est among 34 ad­vanced economies in the Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion and Devel­op­ment (0.27 per­cent in 2016, which is one-tenth as much pro­por­tion­ally as coun­tries such as Fin­land), while Canada ranks 17th (at 0.90 per­cent). But pro­vid­ing peo­ple the right skills isn’t just a ques­tion of more fund­ing. Many pub­licly funded job re­train­ing ini­tia­tives are in­ef­fec­tive.

Ap­proaches from abroad de­mon­strate some po­ten­tial ideas for more ef­fec­tive skills-train­ing sup­ports. Den­mark’s flex­i­cu­rity model al­lows firms to fire and hire work­ers eas­ily – about 25 per­cent of pri­vate­sec­tor em­ploy­ees change jobs an­nu­ally. But this rapid move­ment in and out of jobs is sup­ported by high lev­els of in­vest­ment in skills-train­ing and un­em­ploy­ment ben­e­fits (which can last for up to two years and re­place 90 per­cent of in­come). Sin­ga­pore re­cently in­tro­duced the Skill­sFu­ture pro­gram, which pro­vides life­long learn­ing sup­ports to cit­i­zens on a dig­i­tal plat­form, in­te­grated train­ing sup­ports and in­di­vid­u­al­ized funds for skills devel­op­ment.

A path for­ward for pol­i­cy­mak­ers in other ad­vanced economies would be to de­velop these types of in­te­grated sup­ports. Just as im­por­tant, a rig­or­ous ap­proach to eval­u­at­ing and scal­ing up in­ter­ven­tions that are proved suc­cess­ful must lie at the core of any new train­ing sys­tem, ide­ally with cen­tral­ized ev­i­dence gath­er­ing and shar­ing of best prac­tices. With more than a tril­lion dol­lars


a year spent in the U.S. ed­u­ca­tion and train­ing sys­tem by em­ploy­ers, post­sec­ondary in­sti­tu­tions and gov­ern­ment, the need to en­sure new and ex­ist­ing in­vest­ments are de­liv­er­ing strong re­turns and pro­vid­ing work­ers with the right skills is cru­cial.

Johal is the pol­icy di­rec­tor at the Univer­sity of Toronto’s Mowat Cen­ter.

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