Future of Work

Can new skills come fast enough to outpace the machines? We can but try

The future of work is here ... but people still require better training Image: REUTERS/Toru Hanai

Laura Tyson
Former chair of the US President's Council of Economic Advisers, Haas School of Business
Lenny Mendonca
Senior Fellow, Presidio Institute
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Future of Work

A week rarely goes by without a new dystopian prediction about technologically driven mass unemployment. As artificial intelligence (AI) and robotic technologies advance faster than even their own developers expected, studies are finding that many of the tasks and occupations that employ people can already be automated.

Estimates of the share of automatable employment vary widely, from 14% of all jobs in OECD countries to nearly 50% of all jobs in the US. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, 9-32% of the workforce in developed economies could be displaced within the next decade.

The potential of automation within the workplace. Image: McKinsey

Across all countries, low-skilled occupations that require less formal education will be the most susceptible to automation, whereas jobs requiring professional training and/or tertiary education will be less threatened, at least for now. Either way, we urgently need to start furnishing workers with new skills to meet future labor-market demands.

To that end, US businesses, educational institutions, nongovernmental organizations, and state and local governments have begun to rethink education and training policies. Their work is made more urgent by the fact that the federal government under President Donald Trump is shirking its responsibilities in this area.

Meeting the skills challenge will require an epic reinvention of workforce learning and training. The response must be on par with the establishment of universal secondary education a century ago, or with the “college for all” movement that began in the 1960s. But it must be much faster, and it will have to be spearheaded by public-private partnerships.

This is not the first time the US has had to adapt to vast labor-market disruptions. More than 150 years ago, the Morrill Act of 1862 established and endowed “land-grant universities” to educate Americans in agriculture, science, engineering, and other fields relevant to the Industrial Revolution. After the Civil War, the Morrill Act was extended to the former confederate states. The system it created would evolve into the world’s largest post-secondary education system, encompassing more than 100 colleges and universities.

Economists predict that technological change will eventually create as many jobs as it destroys. But there will be significant hurdles along the way. As things stand, too many US workers lack the skills needed for the good jobs of the future. Though around one-third of US adults have a four-year college degree – the highest proportion on record – an equal share has no more than a high-school diploma. For workers at all educational levels, acquiring additional skills to stay abreast of technologically driven occupational changes will require less “seat-time” in traditional classrooms, and more dynamic forms of workforce training.

A good example of such training is offered by Skillful, a nonprofit venture supported by the Markle Foundation, Microsoft, LinkedIn, and the state of Colorado. Skillful is running a pilot project in Colorado to help workers without a college degree upgrade and market their skills. The idea is to focus both on job seekers and employers, and on skills rather than degrees.

For Skillful CEO Beth Cobert, the goal is to get employers to start appreciating “hard” skills, such as carpentry or web design, and “soft” skills in communication or leadership, even if such skills weren’t acquired in a formal setting, and to recognize workers’ potential for future development. Workers can acquire many of these skills through new forms of training such as targeted certification programs, technology “boot camps,” apprenticeships, and on-the-job classes.

Skillful’s approach is premised on the fact that a true skills-based labor market requires collaboration among many players. Employers and industry groups need to be in closer contact with educational institutions so that the skills being supplied meet current and future demand. And state and local governments should do more to shine a spotlight on their jurisdictions’ competitive strengths and emerging opportunities. “We’re trying to integrate all these participants in the labor market,” says Cobert, and they “typically aren’t talking that much with each other.”

According to the OECD, workers without a college degree are less likely to participate in any type of workforce training. That is why Skillful is leveraging industry and geographical data to help workers discover marketable skills they already have, careers they might want, and places where they can pursue further professional development or new employment. Making such information easily available online is crucial to encourage workers whose jobs are most at risk to explore their training options.

Moreover, Skillful and Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper have launched an intensive program to train career coaches, who will then help individual workers identify the skills and training they need for the jobs they want. And 20 state governors, both Republicans and Democrats, have created a Skillful State Network to collaborate on innovations in workforce development.

At this point, there are no right or wrong strategies, and it is heartening to see that many states are experimenting with different initiatives and sharing lessons learned. They are showing that progressive federalism can work even in “red” (Republican) states.

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For example, North Carolina has created a pathway program to support training for low-skill adults and out-of-school youth. In Ohio, high-school graduates can obtain a rigorous “Professional Readiness” certification covering 15 skill areas. Montana recently introduced a manufacturing apprenticeship program. And Indiana’s “NextLevel” initiative provides grants to employers to train workers in “middle-skill” occupations (those requiring more than a high-school diploma but less than a two-year associate degree).

Twenty years ago, the governors of 19 states in the American West created Western Governors University to teach in-demand competencies online. Today, nearly 100,000 students are enrolled, and California’s government is also proposing an online community college to serve “stranded workers.”

Given the high stakes for millions of workers, there is no alternative to such initiatives. Policymakers should follow the lead of those who are already strengthening education and adult-learning programs so that no workers are left behind by the driving force of automation.

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