Getting U.S. Workers Ready for the Next Productivity Boom

Getting U.S. Workers Ready for the Next Productivity Boom

Artificial intelligence, digitization, big data and analytics, machine learning, robotics: this bundle of cross-cutting technologies is the topic du jour at gatherings from the World Economic Forum to this week’s 2017 Aspen Ideas Festival (AIF), which I am attending and where my firm is Knowledge Partner. But just how big is the disruption that lies ahead? Big. Very, very big.

I believe what we are entering is nothing less than the early stages of the kind of world-altering shift we’ve seen only a few times in human history—when we moved from hunting and gathering to agriculture, for example, or much later from the agrarian era to the industrial age. As it rolls on, this latest transformation is indeed going to change everything about how we work, live and compete.

Of course, in the short term progress will be… uneven. At the AIF panel I moderated this week on “Who’s Generating the New Jobs, and What Skills Will Workers Need?,” I was joined by former OMB director Peter Orzag, former Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and Southern Company CEO Tom Fanning. When I put forward this large idea to open the discussion, Peter countered: “Yes but,” noting that despite this accelerating revolution, so far “the rate of US productivity growth has halved.”

Good point. Right now, despite the mind-blowing potential, we seem to be going through the kind of rocky transition that prompted Nobel Economist Robert Solow’s famous 1987 quip that “we can see computers everywhere except in the productivity statistics.” But in the meantime, as Penny noted, every company you talk to—and she’s talked to more than 2000—already complains they can’t find workers with the skills they need. And that’s before the next productivity boom really kicks in, as it surely will.

So what will it take to begin to prepare the US labor force for a radically different world? Here follow a few highlights from our conversation, organized by sectors.

COMPANIES: Even with the best intentions, educators mostly have no clue what skills employers are looking for. Businesses can and must do far more to close that gap. “It’s the obligation of private industry to step into the breach,” said Tom Fanning. Massively scaling up internships and apprenticeships, which are declining in the US, is another practical step that ensures pre-trained and pre-vetted future employees. The stories are out there—and they work best when communities and businesses engage. Penny Pritzker hailed Houston’s success in rapidly retraining 100,000 jobs-at-risk oil and gas workers for new careers in petrochemicals. At McKinsey, by working with industries, the nonprofit Generation employment project that we founded has in 2 ½ years prepared some 13,000 underemployed and disconnected young people in five countries to succeed after completing a 4-12 week prep course in fields ranging from health services to digital marketing.

INDIVIDUALS: To paraphrase the old country song, “Mamas, DO let your babies grow up to be . . . data scientists,” ideally with a solid EQ as well as IQ. No one knows exactly what new jobs will emerge, Peter Orzag observed, “but it’s a safe bet you’ll need good social skills and a good grounding in things like statistics and coding.” For young people, picking the right industries and sectors is also more important than ever, since the evidence is mounting that a majority of the rise in income inequality in recent decades has come from the growing gap between what superstar companies are able to pay (those already reaping the benefits from a productivity surge) and what the rest deliver. For the rest of us, constantly seeking ways to build skills and connections, to take advantage of new forms of certification and applied lifelong-learning is critical.

GOVERNMENTS: As a country, the US spends far less than other developed nations on worker training and skill building – as little as 1/10 of what the Nordics do. “We shouldn’t assume we can do this on the cheap,” the former OMB director insisted. While no one was waiting for Washington, many held out hopes for more and smarter investment at the state and local level. Beyond money, Penny Pritzker, concluded, what we really need in the US is “a comprehensive strategy, and right now we don’t have one.”

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