Possible Higher-Education Responses to Workplace Automation

Two items of note crossed my desk today.

First, the Brookings Institute has a new report out — “Automation and Artificial Intelligence: How machines are affecting people and places.” As opposed to other impact reports related to automation and AI, the Brookings report focuses on areas of potential occupational change rather than net employment losses or gains.

According to the report:

“Routine” physical and cognitive tasks will be the most vulnerable. Almost no occupation will be unaffected by technological change in the AI era. Some of the most vulnerable jobs are those in office administration, production, transportation, and food preparation. Such jobs are deemed to face “high risk” with over 70 percent of their tasks potentially automatable. All of these either involve routine, physical labor or information collection and processing activities.

Overall, smaller, more rural communities seem significantly more exposed to the automation of current-task content than larger ones. That does not mean, however, that metropolitan areas will not experience significant impact. The map below shows the average automation potential by metropolitan area using data from 2016 (showing the largest 100 metropolitan areas). In my state, Oklahoma, the Brookings report shows that 45.8% of job tasks are susceptible to automation while, in Tulsa, that number is even higher at 47.3%.

In terms of determining the net impact of automation on employment and wages, MIT economist David Autor provides a simplified framework. In it, he highlights three primary dynamics: (1) what technology doesn’t replace, it complements, (2) wages will be determined by the ease with which roles in demand can be filled, (3) the number of jobs in an industry will be determined by the complex interaction of automation-driven price, quality, and wealth changes.

The authors of the report also outline five major agendas that require attention to mitigate coming stresses as the nation moves into the AI period of automation. The first of these is “Promote a constant learning mindset.” Specific recommendations for this agenda include:

  • Invest in reskilling incumbent workers;
  • Expand accelerated learning and certifications;
  • Make skill development more financially accessible;
  • Align and expand traditional education;
  • Foster uniquely human qualities.

The bottom line is that, to address both the promise and challenges presented by workplace automation, the nation will have to respond with significant education solutions.

The second item I found interesting was an article over at Edsurge, where Paul Freedman, Terah Crews, Jeff Selingo and Mike Berlin discussed their predictions for higher education in 2019. At one point in the conversation, responding to the theme of university closures and mergers, Jeff Selingo said:

No one has figured out what is the new model for higher education. We continue to discount tuition at unsustainable levels, we continue to look for revenue that doesn’t really exist at the levels we need it to, and we refuse to cut costs. Until a university or college is willing to do something that is bold and different, financial sustainability is going to continue to be an issue. [bold is mine]

Referring back to the Brookings Institute report, I might suggest that one possible version of “something that is bold and different” might be:

  • Develop certificate programs designed to reskill incumbent workers;
  • Provide accelerated certificate programs that allow incumbent workers to reskill quickly;
  • Create a large postsecondary market funnel with low-cost skill-development certificates (i.e. requires no financing or loans);
  • Align and core university curriculum with the workforce/career skills students actually need to flourish professionally;
  • Design core university curriculum to help students develop demonstrable mastery of critical human literacies such as interpersonal communication and creativity.

Rob Reynolds, Ph.D.
Executive Director, TEL Library