Tech Companies Figure Out What Washington Has Not: Education and Training are Essential to Employing Americans in the Modern Economy

Much of President Trump’s success in connecting with American voters during his presidential campaign can be attributed to a powerful campaign mantra: a promise to bring back “jobs, jobs, jobs.”

Soon after taking office, Mr. Trump began working to fulfill his promise, convening a summit with 24 CEOs of technology and manufacturing companies to discuss policy initiatives aimed at putting Americans back to work and improving infrastructure. During the summit, which took place on February 23rd, the attendees participated in multiple working groups, including a working group on “the workforce of the future,” where executives and administration officials discussed the gaps between the skills required for in-demand jobs and the training of the American workforce.  Even though much of the summit was held in private, Mr. Trump’s opening remarks provide clues regarding the White House’s vision of how jobs will return to the U.S. economy: regulation reform, tax reform, and trade.  Mr. Trump did not, however, take this opportunity to discuss what many believe is the real danger to the U.S. job market: the rise of artificial intelligence, automation, and similar technologies.

As discussed previously in this publication, technology, rather than trade, likely poses the bigger threat to American jobs.  Dramatic advances in artificial intelligence, automation, and similar technologies have put workers from entire industries on the chopping block.  Where driverless vehicles existed only in science fiction a decade ago, today the trucking industry is preparing for disruption through automation; some have predicted that 1.7 million truck driver jobs may disappear over the next 10 years.  Jobs in the financial sector are similarly vulnerable, as artificial intelligence may soon inform day-to-day decision making that is currently performed by analysts.  Many other job categories are likely to see staffing reductions in favor of automation, artificial intelligence and similar technologies.

Prominent technology companies, increasingly aware of the impact of their products on the workforce and the potential resulting backlash, have not waited idly for policy solutions to emanate from Washington.  Instead, these companies are leading the charge to prepare American workers for the modern economy.  They have launched programs designed to train (and retrain) workers with in-demand skills.  For instance, one leading technology and e-commerce company maintains a program that pays tuition costs for its hourly employees to earn degrees in lucrative and high-demand fields.  Similarly, IBM plans to invest $1 billion in retraining U.S. workers over the next four years, and GE recently announced plans to retrain 150,000 of its employees to work in technology-centric environments.  These programs are not merely intended to address potential future problems; they are also intended to address a skills gap in the existing workforce.  Labor surveys over the past several years have regularly found 30%-40% of employers reporting difficulty finding qualified candidates to fill jobs that sit vacant.  While much campaign rhetoric was focused on bringing manufacturing jobs back to the United States, addressing the skills gap has the potential to simultaneously ease underemployment and fill important vacancies.

As of yet, no public recommendations have emerged from Mr. Trump’s summit or the “workforce of the future” working group.  Over the course of the next year, it will be interesting to observe whether Mr. Trump’s administration continues to focus on regulations, tax reform, and trade, or whether the administration will listen to the recommendations from industry leaders and establish policies and programs to retrain the American workforce with skills that are marketable in the modern economy.