Will Employees Survive the Transition to the New Future of Work?

Almost daily, I read an article on the impact of Artificial Intelligence on people’s lives and more importantly their work. These writers point to the need for businesses to achieve efficiency and scale and foresee that major downsizing will occur with serious negative consequences to workers, corporations and communities. “Bots” will take over manual tasks and workers will lack the necessary training to keep up with the changes. Employers will find it difficult to gain and keep a competitive advantage in the world of AI and workers will bear most of any negative economic impact. While I agree these predictions will play out to some degree, the experts often overlook a very important factor — the fundamental resilience of the human spirit.  

I was born and reared just outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and I remember the decline of the area’s major industry – manufacturing. I witnessed first-hand, the surge in unemployment and the devastation of individuals who had been working in the steel mills for twenty or thirty years and felt unprepared to learn new skills. I have faith and predict that history won’t repeat itself.  

In the 1970s and 1980s, our parent’s view of work was different. They graduated high school and/or college and made every attempt to get a foot in the door at a large organization such as US Steel, Westinghouse or Rockwell International. Once gainfully employed, their expectation was that if they showed up and worked hard, they could maintain the status quo and would have a job for life. My great aunt worked at Westinghouse for over 40 years. My great uncle retired from the railroad when he was well into his 70s. My father worked for John Hancock insurance for almost 30 years. It was pure luck that they saw this promise fulfilled. 

Employers in that period had a shorter-term view on business. They were slow to adapt to changes in the economy and marketplace. Most companies did not have long terms plans or they did not update these plans with the same frequency and diligence as we see today. Local communities were also short sighted and moved too slowly to entice new industries into their geographies, instead choosing to be a traditional “Company Town”.  

What has changed? In a word – -RESILIENCE.

Today, many employers are preparing for the future through a variety of approaches including job retraining which was once primary seen as the responsibility of Government. Amazon has committed $700M toward reskilling employees for the future of work and JP Morgan Chase has committed $350M over the next five years. Employers aren’t offering these services out of benevolence; they are reskilling workers because they know there is a shortage of employees with the knowledge needed to effectively compete in the future. Furthermore, technology has allowed for a more connected workforce that lives across the nation rather than in a single location.

Employers are investing intentionally in the development of their employees helping them create a defined career path that excites the individual about the company and its future. In some cases, employers are “locking in” top talent today even though roles are not yet clearly defined. Employers are building resiliency into their core.  

Local communities are getting ahead of the curve. Every few years we hear about a hot city that is attracting existing employers. For years there was explosive growth in Raleigh-Durham, NC and Austin, Texas. Now we hear about Boston, MA and Nashville, TN. Cities are launching incubators and accelerators to entice start-ups to their city. By developing the necessary business portfolio and infrastructure their cities are less volatile during a recession. A large percentage of these new businesses are high-tech firms designed to attract individuals with the skills that will help them stay relevant during times of change. 

Finally, I believe in the resilience of the human spirit. Few people, regardless of their jobs, believe they will work for the same employer for 20 or 30 years. Even those employees classified as “blue collar” have the desire to change with the times. I have a lot of friends and family in Pittsburgh that fall into the blue-collar job category and I am constantly hearing how they are learning new skills on the job or taking advantage of class offerings that will improve their skills. Many of them work second jobs, not because they need the money to make ends meet, rather, they want to make sure that when changes do come, they have a cushion as they navigate to new employment. While I do realize that there are many people struggling to make ends meet who may not be taking advantage of these opportunities today. However, I do believe that unlike the prior generation, these individuals have faith in their ability to contribute to society through work and will do their best to adapt as the market changes.

Resilience – by the employer, community and workers can and will help as we continuously transform the future of work.