Monday, July 15, 2013

Dancing with Robots: Technology Skills of the Future

Manufacturing and other jobs in the U.S. will continue to be offshored to low-wage countries. In our new economy, the future of middle-class work will have to rely on uniquely human brain strength. The next generation of students will need to learn the foundational skills in problem-solving and communication --- skills that computers don’t have.

Well before the Great Recession, middle class Americans questioned the ability of the public sector to adapt to the wrenching forces re-shaping society. And as we’ve begun to see a “new economic normal,” many Americans are left wondering if anyone or any institution can help them, making it imperative that both political parties re-think their 20th century orthodoxies.

How do we ensure American middle class prosperity and individual success in an era of ever-intensifying globalization and technological upheaval? It’s the defining question of our time and one that, as a country, we’ve yet to answer.

In Dancing with Robots Frank Levy and Richard Murnane make a compelling case that the hollowing out of middle class jobs in America has as much to do with the technology revolution and computerization of tasks as with global pressures like China. In so doing, they predict what the future of work will be in America and what it will take for the middle class to succeed. The collapse of the once substantial middle class job picture has begun a robust debate among those who argue that it has its roots in policy, versus those who argue that it has its roots in structural changes in the economy.

Levy and Murnane delve deeply into structural economic changes brought about by technology. These two pioneers in the field argue that the human labor market will center on three kinds of work: 1) solving unstructured problems, 2) working with new information, and 3) carrying out non-routine manual tasks.

The bulk of the rest of the work will be done by computers with some work reserved for low wage workers abroad. They argue that the future success of the middle class rests on the nation’s ability to sharply increase the fraction of American children with the foundational skills needed to develop job-relevant knowledge and to learn efficiently over a lifetime.

As for the state of our schools, Levy and Murnane point out something quite profound, “American schools are not worse than they were in a previous generation. Indeed, the evidence is to the contrary. Today’s education problem stems from the increased complexity of foundational skills needed in today’s economy.”

With the constant upgrades in computer speed and capacity, Levy and Murnane point out that computers will ultimately perform nearly all tasks for which "logical rules or a statistical model lay out a path to a solution, including complicated tasks that have been simplified by imposing structure."

They posit that the future of middle class work will necessarily have to rely on uniquely human brain strengths: “flexibility—the ability to process and integrate many kinds of information to perform a complex task, [such as] solving problems for which standard operating procedures do not currently exist, and working with new information—acquiring it, making sense of it, communicating it to others.”

For sure, over the past decade we have lost millions of manufacturing jobs to China. But we have probably reached the end of that story as Chinese wages continue to rise. Yet we have lost the airline ticket salesperson to a kiosk; the check-out clerk to the scanner, and the factory floor worker to the machine. Each year, computers simply get better, faster, and more powerful.

Meanwhile, both political parties profess an undying commitment to the middle class. But is either party proposing anything remotely close to preparing the current and next generation for solid work in the midst of technological change?

In order to prepare young people to do the jobs computers cannot do we must re-focus our education system around one objective: giving students the foundational skills in problem-solving and communication that computers don’t have.

As the authors of Dancing with Robots illustrate, these skills are not just the skills of professionals with advanced degrees. What computers have done is to make even traditional blue collar jobs like auto-mechanic—dependent upon one’s ability to problem solve and to communicate. These insights are critical to thinking creatively about the challenge of job creation in the 21st century.

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