The Friedrich Naumann Foundation’s Forum on the World Economic Order welcomed an international delegation of experts for a seven day study tour focusing on developments in the future of work around the world. During the program, which took place in Washington, DC and Michigan, the delegation met with over 25 technology and labor practitioners in the U.S. from the private sector, NGOs and non-profits, think tanks, academia, and state government.
The discussion in Washington, DC focused on the future of work as well as the future of workers themselves. While some discussion partners looked ahead to the coming decades to identify labor market trends, many emphasized that the technological revolution has already begun in the workplace, indicating that successful policies for the future need to be undertaken now. In contrast to the general suspicion and concern in the media and many industrial areas about the negative effects of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation, a majority of discussion partners in Washington, DC believed that ultimately such technology would create more jobs and opportunities for workers as a whole. Here the emphasis was on augmented, over artificial, intelligence, which will support and complement workers rather than replace them. The predicted success of this outcome varied, as well as determining the number of low-skill jobs that will regardless fall into obsoletion as a result of new technology. However, all discussion partners agreed that education was essential to developing the skills needed to thrive in the economy of the future, both through continued technological learning as well as uniquely “human skills” such as critical thinking and qualitative analysis.
The second half of the program took place in Detroit, Ann Arbor, and Lansing, MI. With the headquarters of most major U.S. car manufacturers in Detroit and the surrounding area, Michigan had been considered an industrial powerhouse for over 100 years at the time of the 2008 financial crisis. The Great Recession had disastrous effects on job prospects throughout the state, as many former factory workers had limited education and skills training. This resulted in unemployment highs of 15.2% in June 2009, more than double the rate less than two years prior. In 2013 the city of Detroit filed bankruptcy, the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in U.S. history at an estimated $18-20 billion USD. With the collapse in prosperity came mass migration out of the state, as well as an increase in crime and a dearth of outside investment. However, less than 10 years later, private investment and jobs have returned to Michigan, manifesting in a burgeoning technology sector. Large-scale public works projects have resumed, and 2017 marked the first time since 2001 that more people have moved into the state than out of it. Therefore Michigan served as a case study for many participants for the consequences of lagging behind the labor innovation curve, and how to adapt an economy to ensure that it does not happen again.
Perhaps unsurprising given the state’s history, many discussion partners in Michigan focused on specific skills training, rather than the broad educational approach recommended by partners in Washington, DC. However, unlike the factory workers of previous generations, this skills training is intended for both high- and low-skilled employment. In Detroit, the delegation met with an ed-tech startup which runs a series of 12 week coding boot camps, designed to re-skill employees who wish to remain competitive in the increasingly tech-focused Michigan job market. The have also been a number of initiatives developed at the state level which seek to direct young people towards certificates and technical skills training that will allow them to enter the job market much faster than their college-bound peers, and at a fraction of the cost of a university education. On the middle and high school level there has also been emphasis on project-based learning to develop the interpersonal or “human” skills that were echoed in Washington, DC. While it remains to be seen if continued short-term training programs will be a viable solution in an adaptive future economy, there is no denying the efforts made on the private and public level to support long-term labor market growth and prosperity in Michigan. If these measures prove successful, Michigan’s model for economic transformation may have best-practice implications both within the U.S. and beyond.
Courtney Flynn, Program Associate, Forum on the World Economic Order, Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.