Education must keep pace with advancing digitalization

Dec. 22, 2017
Rick Nelson,
Executive Editor

The emergence of digital technology, AI, and automation are having seemingly conflicting effects on labor markets: automation can displace jobs, yet it simultaneously creates demand for employees with advanced technology skills. Researchers led by Mark Muro, senior fellow and policy director for the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings, address the latter situation in a report titled Digitalization and the American Workforce. They studied 545 occupations covering 90% of the U.S. workforce since 2001. They found that in 2002, only 5% of jobs required high digital skills; that percentage had increased to 23% by 2016. And in 2002, 56% of positions could be filled by workers with low digital skills; by 2016, only 30% of positions were open to such workers.

The researchers found that job growth has been high in computer-mathematical and business-finance occupations requiring high digital skills but slow in office-administrative and education occupations requiring only middle-level digital skills. The result clearly shows up in wages. They found that in 2016 the mean annual wage for workers in high-level digital occupations was $72,896, vs. $48,274 for those in middle-level digital jobs and only $30,393 for those in low-level digital jobs. Further, they found that only 30% of tasks in high-digital occupations appear susceptible to automation, whereas nearly 60% of tasks in low-digital occupations are susceptible to automation.

To bring the low-skill workers up to speed, the Brookings researchers recommend “accelerated learning solutions” like tech boot camps and code schools.

Writing in The Boston Globe, L. Rafael Reif, president of MIT, cites a Pew study in which 72% of U.S. adults express concerns about humans losing jobs to robots. “As president of an institute with ‘technology’ in its name and national service in its mission, I take these concerns seriously,” he writes. As a first step, he recommends getting good data—not anecdotal evidence—about the groups and regions losing jobs to automation. With good data in hand, he recommends building laid-off workers’ skill sets through online credentialing programs and “continuous uptraining.” He cautions that reinventing the future will require a “whole society effort,” involving institutions like MIT, corporations, governments, unions, and workers themselves. He calls on those developing and benefiting from technology to lead the way to make sure modern technologies don’t damage the societies they are supposed to serve.

Note that skilled knowledge workers aren’t immune to being displaced by technology. The 30% of tasks in high-digital occupations that Muro and his team identified as being susceptible to automation could adversely affect many people. Makada Henry-Nickie, another researcher at Brookings, elaborates on this point, arguing that the growing trend of integrating AI into the workforce could affect skilled knowledge workers whose jobs involve data-driven decision-making as well as low-skilled workers. She notes, for example, that “…between 2011 and 2017, Goldman Sachs replaced 600 desk traders in its workforce with 200 coding engineers. And Goldman is not alone. Instead, their shift toward algorithmic-based trading is being replicated at an accelerated pace in the investment banking space—an industry that has historically paid extraordinary wage premiums for trading skills.”

Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern University and author of Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, writes in The Boston Globe that the “…answer to greater artificial intelligence is greater human intelligence.” From the original Industrial Revolution to the digital revolution, education has been the key to adapting. “Education is how we update our operating systems,” he says.

Code boot camps may not be enough. Aoun advises rethinking the concept of a “useful” education. He agrees that people must be literate in technology but argues that they also require “…immersion in the human subjects that elevate us above the most brilliant machines—nourishing our empathy, cultural agility, and creativity.”

Visit my blog for links to the sources cited, including the interactive Brookings report on digitalization.

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