The Future of Work for Communities Across America

This article is part of an NLC series on the future of work in America’s cities.

Work defines so much of what and who people are. Since the very beginning of cities, some version of work has defined our days, our conceptions of time and our sense of self. The consistency of our relationship with work means that any disruption, whether potential or real, will capture people’s attention and fuel concerns across our communities. Now, the disruptions seem pervasive and profound, driven by rapid globalization and the dramatic rise of artificial intelligence in our workplaces.

We are currently in a multi-generational workforce transition, one comparable in scope to the industrial revolution. It is not yet a foregone conclusion, however, that the “robots will take our jobs.” Instead, it is likely that we can work together with technology to co-create career pathways and generate employment outcomes that we today cannot even imagine. The future of work will depend at least in part on the policy choices we make, the educational pathways we build and the delicate balance we strike between economic efficiencies and societal goals.

Rapid technological advances are creating new ways to work, with the promise of increased productivity and wages in some sectors of the economy. However, they also threaten to eliminate entire occupations and radically transform large segments of the U.S. labor market. Current estimates suggest 15-25 percent of tasks in manufacturing, packing, construction, maintenance and agriculture could be automated by 2025.

Accompanying these broader shifts is the move away from salaried employment based on a 40-hour work week to “gigs,” or short-term work. The gig economy is an increasingly important component of the labor market, with participants relying upon short-term or contractual work, freelance opportunities, and oftentimes, multiple sources of income. Estimates suggest that as much as 34 percent of the workforce now participates in some way in the gig economy.

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These powerful economic trends are also raising new challenges for those committed to racial equity and justice. Residents of color are disproportionately vulnerable to job loss and reduced earning potential as a result of these changes. A recent report by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that more than five percent of both black and Latino workers are concentrated in just two job classifications at high risk of employment declines due to automation: retail salespersons and cashiers. In this context, efforts by municipal leaders to anticipate and plan for the future of work will need to have a strong focus on racial equity in order to meet the needs of all residents.

As the tide of innovation in cities rises, local leaders must work assiduously towards inclusive economic development. An effective process starts with data-driven analyses of near- and longer-term workforce trends as well as deep collaborations with employers, educators, workforce leaders and other community stakeholders. While the future of work means different things to different people, municipal leaders from cities large and small increasingly recognize that the challenges of strengthening workforce development and expanding pathways to high-quality jobs must be front and center.

What might this look like? For young people who are still in school or just entering the labor market, communities must search for ways to institute or expand successful programs that strengthen the knowledge and skills of young people and provide opportunities to youth who are neither working nor in school to resume their education. Here are some ways cities can lead:

  • Launch initiatives to promote afterschool and summer learning: Strong, citywide afterschool systems and engaging summer programs can build key workforce skills and provide greater exposure to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education and experiences.
  • Expand the use of apprenticeships and other models for work-based learning: City leaders can strengthen connections between school districts, community colleges, workforce development agencies and local employers, thereby building stronger pathways to postsecondary and workforce success.
  • Re-engage young people who have left school without a diploma: The creation of dropout re-engagement centers – either through one-stop, co-located programs or virtual reengagement hubs – can help these youth resume their education and give them the support they need to pursue college and/or careers.
  • Build a high-quality early childhood workforce: Many city leaders recognize that their future workforce depends on efforts to give children a strong start in life. When staff in early care and education programs have access to professional development, supports and higher wages, program quality rises and the workforce is stronger and more stable.

Meanwhile, those who are currently in the workforce will need new approaches to benefits and income supports, as well as opportunities for retraining and lifelong learning. City leaders should explore:

  • The creation of portable benefit systems: As workers change jobs more frequently and on-demand and contract work become more common, portable benefits that are tied to individuals rather than employers become increasingly important. These benefits can include paid leave, health insurance, workers’ compensation/unemployment and retirement fund matching.
  • Assistance to past-prime and technologically displaced workers: To ensure people have enough savings as they near retirement, a framework for mandatory 401(k)s can be instituted – and additional levels of support should be explored. Training programs for technologically displaced individuals and older workers that enable them to develop competitive new skills should also be established.
  • Affordable child care and mandated paid leave policies: City leaders can work to build an early learning community by helping parents find child care and preschool options while also seeking to improve quality and increase the number of affordable slots in the community. Cities can also adopt paid family leave policies for their own employees and encourage other employers to provide this support.

Larger cities have the inherent advantage of scale, and research from a broad array of institutions has consistently shown that economically large cities have pulled ahead of their smaller brethren. However, smaller communities can be proactive and focus on their comparative advantages. Small-city leaders should think about skills, not jobs; work regionally where appropriate; and engage directly with local businesses to identify trends and future workforce needs.

These recommendations and the broad focus on the future of work underway at the National League of Cities – led by our president, Mayor Stodola of Little Rock, Arkansas – is built on a longstanding breadth and depth of both research and technical assistance to cities. NLC will continue to support city leadership as the future of work takes shape.

Cliff_Johnson_ready.jpg About the Authors: Clifford Johnson is the executive director of the National League of Cities’ (NLC) Institute for Youth, Education , and Families.



Brooks rainwater

Brooks Rainwater is the senior executive and director of the National League of Cities’ (NLC) Center for City Solutions. Rainwater drives the organization’s research agenda, community engagement efforts, and leadership education programming to help city leaders create strong local economies, safe and vibrant neighborhoods, world-class infrastructure, and a sustainable environment.