Recently, I spoke at the Aspen Institute Inequality & Opportunity Summit. It was a fantastic experience, with hundreds of insightful people focused on ensuring that individuals from all walks of life, at all rungs of the economic ladder, have the ability to pursue meaningful pathways for growth and opportunity. I was honored to be a part of it.
I shared some of what Walmart is doing to address stability and mobility for our associates and why our scale matters. But one pressing issue we didn’t have a chance to discuss is the future of work – how technology will be dramatically changing both the workforce and the skills needed to succeed in the new economy – and how organizations can tackle these issues.
It is hard to overstate how vital this work will be for our country. Over the next five years, the US could face a shortfall of 11 million skilled workers, according to a report by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. That number includes 4.3 million workers with some college, an associate’s degree, and/or vocational certificate. At the same time, automation, artificial intelligence, and advanced robotics are on the way, a stress test for our collective ability to rapidly adapt to change.
We know that new technologies can yield tremendous economic and societal benefits if we deploy them thoughtfully. One-third of new jobs created in the US in the past 25 years were types that essentially did not exist before. The net impact of new technologies on employment can be positive, and enable new forms of entrepreneurial activity.
Businesses will seek out ways to use new technologies to meet customers’ evolving needs, and retail and other sectors will change drastically over time as a result. We must ensure this change is people-led and tech-enabled. Productivity will improve as a result, but only if we have well-trained people to work with emerging technology and tools (think: working smarter, rather than merely faster). If we get this right, and equip our workforce with in-demand skills, navigating into new job types or entirely new career fields will become an exciting possibility.
Naturally, there are public policy elements to consider here. And because things are moving fast, policymakers are struggling with exactly where and how best to engage. So here are a few ideas and questions. Some are new, some aren’t – but they represent a slice of what all employers are thinking about.
Businesses know that all of us in the private and public sectors have roles to play to ensure the workforce is propelled – not displaced – by innovation and changes in customer demand. We want to be a driver in this space – we want to partner with policymakers and the public.
Do we lean into championing the “earn and learn” approach that Walmart’s work-based training programs exemplify, encouraging other employers across industries to follow suit?
Should companies work with state and federal policymakers to improve education and training programs and better align with the skills companies are hiring for? Could we also help create and drive policy from the ground up? What is our role in fostering and supporting local decision-making – not just elected officials, but our school systems? Science and math skills, as well as familiarity and proficiency with emerging technology will be vital for all. Do we have a role in ensuring that all students are offered a rigorous and relevant course of study – especially for those whose future path won’t take them through a four-year college or university? Is there a new role for colleges and universities to play in intensive skills training that is different than the traditional curricula?
These are big issues – but we could begin by focusing on something small, something that perhaps gets overlooked or lost in this big, future-focused discussion. For example, we know that just getting to work can be a barrier for many. Bus stops in the right places, along with smarter infrastructure and mass transit routes, are actually important pieces of the stability puzzle that help to keep people in their jobs or get them to class.
Walmart is looking at many places where we can collaborate to bring a unique and helpful perspective to the table, or use our size and scale in beneficial ways, or both. We are considering a variety of ideas, and we want your insights. We’re going to continue to listen to and learn from smart people who are focused on these issues. We look forward to continuing the dialogue with the Institute and its network of thought leaders, and we are eager to roll up our sleeves and get to work. These issues are big and they’re not going away.
Dan Bryant is Senior Vice President for Global Public Policy and Government Affairs at Walmart.