Employment and Jobs

Capitol Hill Briefing Highlights Role That Existing Programs Can Play in Addressing Automation

October 24, 2019  • Alastair Fitzpayne & Ethan Pollack

Last week, the Future of Work Initiative hosted a briefing on Capitol Hill to explore ways to modernize existing policies to better address the needs of today and tomorrow’s workers as they grapple with an increasingly automated economy. While some have concluded that entirely new systems and policies are needed to address the challenges of automation and artificial intelligence, this briefing brought together policy experts who have focused on existing programs and highlighted how changes to these programs could help our nation’s workforce.  

The briefing, supported by the Autodesk Foundation, highlighted both the challenges and opportunities that automation presents. The event began with welcome remarks from Alastair Fitzpayne, Executive Director of the Future of Work Initiative, and David Ohrenstein, Director and Senior Public Policy Counsel for Autodesk.

Representative Derek Kilmer (WA-06), who serves as Chair of the New Democrat Coalition, then delivered keynote remarks. He spoke about the technological disruptions that he’s experienced over his lifetime, and the importance of policy in addressing economic change. He noted several pieces of legislation proposed by members of the New Democrat Coalition as part of their Economic Opportunity Agenda. Specifically, he highlighted efforts to modernize access to career and technical education, including proposals to create worker training tax credits and lifelong learning accounts.

Next, Alastair Fitzpayne provided an overview of how technology has created significant economic disruptions over the last century, how automation continues to impact the economy and workers, and why future technologies hold the potential to be more disruptive. He highlighted a variety of policy interventions to better prepare workers and businesses alike that were included in our recent report Automation and a Changing Economy

Finally, Future of Work Initiative Associate Director of Research and Policy Ethan Pollack moderated a panel discussion exploring policy solutions to address automation. The experts participating in the panel included: Chandra Brown of MxD; Molly Kinder of New America; Spencer Overton of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies; Andrew Stettner of The Century Foundation; and Andy Van Kleunen of the National Skills Coalition. 

Below are some of the key takeaways from the discussion. 

1. Our current systems to help displaced workers upskill and transition to new jobs have been inadequate.

Manufacturing has faced dramatic change over the past few decades, with trends like automation and globalization impacting the security and stability of manufacturing employment. Chandra Brown argued that our current programs like Unemployment Insurance (UI) and Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) have not done enough to help these workers. Along with policy reform, she noted that it is critical for manufacturers to focus on how new technologies and data are reshaping manufacturing and improve talent pipelines.

Andrew Stettner elaborated that while TAA provides the most comprehensive set of benefits to displaced workers, it only covers those workers who lose their jobs due to trade. As a consequence, over the last three years only 439,000 dislocated workers have qualified for the program, compared to 3 million long-tenure workers who have been displaced.

2. Automation will impact different groups of people in different ways, with women and people of color poised to experience the most significant disruption. 

When considering policy solutions, panelists highlighted the importance of considering a broad and diverse set of workers. Spencer Overton noted that African Americans are uniquely vulnerable to automation, with 27 percent concentrated in just 30 high risk occupations, such as cashiers, retail sales, drivers, or cooks. Despite this heightened vulnerability, he said that formal evaluations of federal workforce programs often fail to look at outcomes for specific racial groups, leaving us with a poor understanding of whether these programs are effectively serving the populations with the greatest needs. Demographic groups may have unique situations and needs, and better data would allow policymakers to ensure these programs are effectively serving all populations of workers.  

Policymakers should also factor in gender when crafting policy solutions. Despite making up less than half of the total labor force, Molly Kinder observed that women constitute 54 percent of workers employed in high risk occupations. A lifelong learning approach that doesn’t provide wraparound support services risks disadvantaging women, who disproportionately have caregiving responsibilities and may struggle to balance those with training. Furthermore, many of the more “automation-proof” jobs that are forecast to grow the most over the next decade—such as home health aides—are low-paying jobs that disproportionately employ women. She highlighted that it won’t be enough to simply move workers to these roles that are less likely to be automated—policymakers must also focus on improving the wage and benefits associated with these jobs, and providing pathways to better career opportunities. 

3. When considering whether we have the right foundation in place for meeting the challenges of the future or if we need to think outside the box, it’s not an “either, or” approach.

Panelists argued that in order to address the challenges that automation presents, we will need to both expand on what works with our existing systems, and consider new approaches entirely. For example, Andy Van Kleunen observed that it took a long time to get WIOA reauthorized, and it’s a program that has strong bipartisan support—making it a good candidate for building further momentum in areas where there is already agreement. As an example, he suggested expanding Pell grants to include short-term training programs.  

Big and bold ideas are certainly needed to reinvigorate our economy and meet the challenges of the future. However, there are also many ideas that involve updating our 20th century programs that could be valuable complements to strategies aimed at creating a 21st century economy.