Solutions for Our Future

This is an excerpt from a report we released earlier this year, Assessing the Future of Our Work.

The rise of new technologies drastically changed the nature of work throughout history, both as a cause of and a response to massive historical shifts. Cities feel these shifts most acutely, serving as the places where these rapid movements are found, focused, and filtered into broader society.

Knowledge sharing and new ideas form within a conglomeration of individuals as the density of people from all walks of life, cultures and creeds create a dynamism that pushes us forward. This dynamism often leads to disruption — as well as great upheaval — as technology upends fundamental ways of being.

As automation and robotics permeate great swaths of the workforce — hyper-charged by the advent of usable artificial intelligence — we currently find ourselves in just such a period in which large numbers of workers will be displaced as the new washes away the old.

No industry, job or task is safe from automation. Displacement of existing jobs
is a given, and the new kinds of jobs that will arise in their place remain unknown. Today, new technologies can optimize manual, automatic, routine and non-routine tasks alike, making displacement difficult to quantify.

A 2013 Oxford study predicted that automation would replace 47 percent of American occupations in the next two decades. Alternatively, a 2016 study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) using a task-based approach found that automation would eliminate only nine percent of American occupations. Furthermore, McKinsey Global has estimate the U.S. labor force will hold 166 million workers by 2030, with anywhere between 39-73 million of this contingent displaced by automation.

There are predictions that some 48-54 million people will need to change careers in this time frame. Unfortunately, the incongruence and complexities do not end there. While fear of displacement lingers as a quantifiably ambiguous but certain force of change, cities must also grapple with the fact that currently 22.2 percent of the U.S. labor force is underutilized, meaning individuals are working beneath their skill sets, are underemployed and/or are earning beneath their means.

Even the lowest estimates on automation mean that millions of Americans will be
out of work, but cities can take strategic steps to prepare for this future. While cities can do little to prevent the elimination of jobs due to automation, they can prepare their local economies for prospective high-demand jobs that have low probabilities of being automated. They can also equip workers with those promising skill sets that will be in-demand in the future.

Our report identifies different categories of occupations and attempts to bridge the gaps between those with high and low automatability. We suggest the best skills and logical career crosswalks towards better opportunities and sustainable local economies. Finally, we present case examples from three American cities to display how they are supporting and scaling accessible pathways to employment, equity and emerging industries.



Brooks rainwater
About the Authors: Brooks Rainwater is the senior executive director of the Center for City Solutions and Applied Research at the National League of Cities. Follow Brooks on Twitter @BrooksRainwater.

nicole_depuis_ready Nicole DuPuis is the principal associate for urban innovation in NLC’s Center for City Solutions and Applied Research. Follow Nicole on Twitter at @nicolemdupuis.
headshot4.30Camille Moore is a Carnegie Mellon Heinz Fellow in NLC’s Center for City Solutions