The Emerging Issues Forum always puts a microscope on the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead and this year’s event was no exception. FutureWork used compelling data and trending to focus on those jobs and the workforce need for North Carolina’s future.
Author and futurist Martin Ford and NC State University Economist Mike Walden keynoted and framed the discussion. Ford began by saying that in 1998 the number of work-hours of labor in the U.S. was 194 billion hours. By 2013 business output had risen 42 percent, the population had grown by 40 percent, yet the number of work-hours remained static at 194 billion due to increased productivity and improved technology.
Whereas we previously employed automation and machines to perform routine tasks, today’s robotics possess cognitive reasoning to sort through data, come to conclusions and even manufacture products. Ford said that in 1979, the peak employment of the auto industry, there were 840,000 autoworkers and the industry generated $11 billion in earnings. In 2012, Google employed 38,000 workers and reported $14 billion in earnings. Tomorrow’s economy will look more like Google than the automotive industry.
The jobless recovery required six years for America to regain the same employment numbers we had prior to recession and those new jobs were generally of lower quality and incomes. Prior to 1970 productivity increases and compensation tracked closely on a graph; since then compensation has remained static to declining as productivity increased rapidly, the result of downsizing, budget cuts and new technologies. This is an unsustainable trend. Machines do not consume. For the economy to continue expanding business must be able to sell more and have people who can afford to buy.
Walden’s remarks were titled “Technological Unemployment and its impact for North Carolina,” saying it was the issue of the century. Machines don’t need pay increases, never get tired, don’t get hurt on the job, don’t go on vacation and are precisely tuned for predictable results. There is a 70 percent likelihood that 49 percent of today’s jobs won’t exist in a decade or two.
100 years ago two-thirds of our workforce was employed on the farm. We moved from the farm to manufacturing and are transitioning to service sector jobs, positions that typically pay less and exacerbate the decline of the middle class. Technology and machines are invading knowledge-based, middle-income jobs such as accounting, human resource specialists, market research analysts and the professions.
Walden says the two questions are what will technology do next and what won’t technology be able to do? It doesn’t appear technology will replace household management, organization management, repair and maintenance of technology equipment, data management and analysis, age-related assistance, social interactive jobs and education retraining. We must rethink the structure, content and delivery of education at all levels. Equipping and retraining our workforce will force new approaches to assistance and unemployment programs.
The takeaway from this year’s Emerging Issues Forum is daunting, but half of any challenge is in knowing what lies ahead. Rapid changes in the workplace will only accelerate, demanding that leaders in commerce, education and public policy rethink today’s status quo.
Our question is this: does North Carolina possess the vision, leaders and will to react and respond to these changes? Our future wellbeing demands timely, wise and appropriate responses.
Tom Campbell is the Executive Producer and Moderator of N.C. Spin.