Sept. 7, 2020 (Courtesy of Fast Company)
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a devastating loss of lives and livelihoods around the globe, and for those of us continuing to shelter-in-place, it has drastically changed the way we go about our daily lives. With limited opportunities to return to work for millions, COVID-19 has also accomplished something that few of us could have predicted: it has revealed fundamental flaws in how we approach employment in the face of changing times.
Fears of automation replacing various jobs have been bandied about for years, with industry watchers reporting nervousness around everything from fast food order kiosks to manufacturing, medicine, and even management. And while those fears are absolutely well-founded, few people have proposed real solutions. Refusing to use a self-serve checkout at the grocery store isn’t going to stop the future from coming.
Growing up in West Virginia, I’ve seen the impact that an industry collapse can have on jobs, people, and an entire region first-hand. When jobs disappear without a plan to replace them, the word “disastrous” doesn’t even begin to explain the outcome.
Coming from this first-hand experience, I’ve been a staunch advocate for planning for the future of work today rather than when it comes. This is what attracted me to my current role at Udacity, where I could help the workers of today prepare for jobs that are future-proofed for the inevitable world of automation that is knocking at their doors. But while I felt there already was an aggressive timeline needed to prepare the workforce for what’s to come, there was no predicting just how swiftly COVID-19 would speed up this challenge.
As of the start of June 2020, more than 42 million Americans have filed for unemployment because of COVID-19’s impact on the economy—and it’s unlikely that many of those jobs will be coming back. A working paper that the Becker Friedman Institute for Economics at University of Chicago published in early May estimates that 42% of recent layoffs will result in permanent job loss. If face-to-face interactions are now seen as a potential danger, if reopened stores need to limit the number of customers, and if factory automation can help to prevent disruptions in the supply chain related to disease or illness, we may have to call this moment for what it is: automation’s transition from potential threat to welcome solution.
The silver lining in this, and what I’ve been encouraging workers to consider in the face of the inevitable for some time now, is that there is a considerable need for a workforce that can create, manage, and maintain this new generation of technology. According to a report from the World Economic Forum, there will be 58 million opportunities for employment in AI and machine learning, but only 300,000 people with the skills to fill those roles. The employment gap is huge and just waiting to be filled. The only thing that’s needed for most workers is the training to develop the necessary skills.
Recently, I’ve been thinking over how the government can enable skills development for citizens whose jobs have been displaced by COVID-19. Shortly after I considered these ideas, whether by coincidence or fate, it seemed many leaders in positions of power revealed they shared my line of thinking.
On May 20, a bipartisan bill was introduced in the Senate by Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn), Ben Sasse (R-Neb), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) that would offer job-compromised Americans a $4,000 tax credit to offset the cost of skills training. While this might sound like a small amount for those accustomed to the lengthy college and university route, this is more than adequate to cover the cost of skills training if done online. Industry-recognized certificate programs are typically as little as $1,500 and can be completed in a matter of months, offering job-ready skills and hands-on experience that can quickly connect impacted workers with their next opportunities.
Even without the incentive of a tax credit, we’ve seen an incredible demand from workers in recent months to pursue new career skills. At Udacity, we’ve seen user enrollments quadruple since the lockdown began—and a recent Nanodegree scholarship that we’re offering in partnership with Amazon Web Services received nearly 45,000 registrations.
Workers are eager to prepare for what’s coming next, and while the impact that COVID-19 has had on the economy has been unparalleled in modern history, this moment may also help millions of people to move into high-paying careers that will future-proof them in the new economy.