• Automation will create jobs but puts some occupations at risk, especially those involving routine or a low skill level;
  • A faster, more affordable pathway to upskilling in the face of automation and a high-quality, future-resilient job could lie in non-degree credentials.

In his 2016 State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama singled out automation as the number one reason why Americans feel anxious about the economy.

Later, just before Donald Trump took office after having won many states that are likely to be most highly affected by automation, President Obama used his farewell address to urge action to adapt to the upcoming automation wave. “[T]he next wave of economic dislocation won’t come from overseas. It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes many good, middle-class jobs obsolete,” he noted.

Public fear of automation-related displacement has since grown. Experts are undecided on how many jobs automation will ultimately create or eliminate, but we now know what kinds of jobs are most likely to be automated first: jobs composed of routine tasks which make up a majority of low-skill occupations.

Image: New America

As the pandemic continues to hasten automation, workers need to upskill –– and quickly. From the international platform of the World Economic Forum to factory shop floors, workers need governments, education providers and employers to develop a plan for navigating automation-enabled displacement.

Quality, non-degree credential programmes can play an important role in empowering worker transition in the automation era and advancing the vision of the Forum’s Great Reset which features inclusive jobs.

Interest in non-degree credentials is growing, but which ones are of quality?

A traditional baccalaureate education won’t suit all. Those at highest risk of displacement are working adults, including women and underserved minorities, who balance caregiving, paying their bills and minding their personal and mental health. They deserve faster, more affordable pathways to quality jobs.

There are more than 475,000 non-degree credentials in the US including industry certifications, certificates, licences, apprenticeships and more. Which ones are worth pursuing?

The truth is we don’t know for sure. In the US, outcome data for non-degree programmes is not standardized nationally which makes it challenging for workers to know which ones are of quality.

But these credentials do have value and there are markers for what constitutes a quality non-degree credential: programmes should lead directly to a quality job, contribute to gender and racial equity, 'stack' towards continuing education, be affordable and command a respectable completion rate.

Workers are being directed into non-degree credentials that lead to occupations that are low-quality or at high-risk for automation displacement—we can change this.

Consider a video posted earlier this year from the Indiana Department of Workforce Development’s Trade Adjustment Assistance programme, which is designed to help with upskilling workers. The video proudly highlights the story of a laid-off manufacturing worker looking to upskill for a new career.

She enrolled at a for-profit allied health school for a 30-week medical billing and office administration programme and then found work as a release of information specialist at a nearby hospital where she would also earn more.

In theory, this is a success story; a job is better than no job. However, as the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Future of Jobs report illustrates, data entry clerks and administrative secretaries are ranked number one and two respectively for decreasing demand in the age of AI-enabled automation. This job may be safe for now, but for how long?

What jobs will be in demand by 2025?
What jobs will be in demand by 2025?
Image: World Economic Forum

Even government programmes intended to help workers upskill may be unintentionally directing people into jobs that are of low quality or at high-risk of automation.

Instead, governments, education providers and employers need to help workers earn quality non-degree credentials that lead to high quality, future-resilient jobs.

Automation itself isn’t a problem, but without a reskilling strategy it will be. Here’s how quality non-degree credentials can help

This fear of automation is not new. As the late Harvard professor Calestous Juma laid out in his seminal book Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies, technological progress has always come with some level of public concern.

The bellhops feared automatic elevators and so did bowling pin resetters. Video did indeed “kill the radio star” and it wasn’t long before internet media streaming services made video retailers obsolete in the mid-2000s.

This “creative destruction” means that automation-enabling technologies will destroy jobs, but they will also increase productivity, lower prices and create new (hopefully better) jobs too.

Some have even advocated that in order to help low-income workers, we should speed up the automation of low-income jobs. Non-degree credentials can help workers adapt.

Automation can change the world for the better, but only we if prepare for it

To be sure, non-degree credentials are no silver bullet to automation displacement. A number of policy recommendations can help our world transition to new, high-quality jobs. However, in our current skills marketplace, helping at-risk workers acquire quality, in-demand non-credentials offered by reputable education and training providers is the right first step.

President-Elect Joe Biden will soon stand where President Obama and President Trump before him stood. He will face unemployment levels at historic highs and a global pandemic, as well as automation continuing to revolutionize our workplaces. In this climate, we must help more vulnerable workers obtain quality short-term credentials that lead to decent, future-resilient jobs.