Equity & Diversity

Automation, Jobs, and Education: 7 Key Takeaways From New Brookings Analysis

By Benjamin Herold — January 24, 2019 5 min read
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Automation driven by advances in artificial intelligence will likely have a far-reaching impact on the U.S. labor market, but the effects will vary by occupation, geographic region, gender, race, and more, according to a new analysis by the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution.

The findings indicate that automation could hit young workers especially hard, and Brookings offers advice on how K-12 schools might best prepare their students for the uncertain future ahead.

“To develop a workforce prepared for the changes that are coming, educational institutions must de-emphasize rote skills and stress education that helps humans to work better with machines—and do what machines can’t,” reads the report, titled “Automation, AI, and the American Worker: Recent and Future Impacts on People and Places.”

“This means more focus on developing students’ digital skills, as well as increased emphasis on experiential learning,” the report says.

For their analysis, Brookings researchers Mark Muro, Rob Maxim, and Jacob Whiton looked both backwards, examining the impact of “IT-era” automation beginning in the 1980s, and forward, projecting the impact of new technologies in the coming decades. They drew on multiple datasets, including information from the U.S. Census and federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, as well as a recent analysis by the McKinsey Global Institute looking at the extent to which current technologies can take over the various tasks required in a wide range of existing occupations.

A quarter of American jobs are likely to be seriously disrupted, Brookings predicts. But more than 60 percent of jobs will likely be only mildly disrupted, and just 4 percent are vulnerable to being almost entirely automated.

Here are seven big points from the report for K-12 audiences to consider:

1. Occupations that involve non-routine activities, creativity, and social intelligence are the least vulnerable to automation. Those skills are fundamental in both high-skill jobs, such as software developers (where just 8 percent of job-based tasks can be automated with existing technologies) and low-paying positions such as home health aides (8 percent.)

2. Young workers are dramatically overrepresented in jobs that are vulnerable to automation. This is mostly because there are so many 18 to 24 year-olds working in food preparation and food service. Nearly 30 percent of such young workers are in jobs at high risk of automation, Brookings estimated.

“Schools, employers, and government need to work to broaden paid opportunities for students and begin exposure to careers as early as possible,” Muro wrote in an emailed response to questions from Education Week. “Colleges and universities should be bolstering co-ops, paid internships, and other forms of skill development that provide students a wage. This will not only help young people make ends meet, but will also make skill development more equitable. Currently many students are shut out of unpaid internships because they’re not financially feasible, or they lean on these type of food-service jobs to pay bills while they’re in unpaid work.”

3. There’s a good chance that automation will continue to “hollow out” the middle class. The first era of digital automation in the U.S. economy, beginning with the rise of the personal computer in the 1980’s, had the effect of concentrating job and wage gains at the low and high ends of the skill distribution (i.e., service-sector and professional jobs.) “That our forward-looking analysis projects more of the same in the next decade-plus will not, therefore, be comforting,” the new report says.

4. A college degree offers significant protection against automation. The typical worker without a bachelor’s degree is currently in a job in which roughly half of required tasks could be automated with existing technologies, Brookings reports. The typical work with such a degree is in a job in which just 29 percent of required tasks are vulnerable to automation.

5. Teaching is among the occupations least vulnerable to automation. Just 27 percent of the current tasks required in “educational services” professions are automatable with existing technologies, Brookings estimates. That’s far lower than the 42 percent of tasks in finance and insurance occupations that are automatable, or the 59 percent of tasks in manufacturing occupations.

“Every job will have some task change,” Muro wrote. “But ultimately, positions like teachers, school counselors, and psychologists are suited to uniquely human qualities; they are unpredictable on a day-to-day basis, and they are grounded in interpersonal communication and emotional intelligence.”

6. “Digital-skills exposure” and experiential learning opportunities could be key for students. Mid- to high-level digital skills are already needed to secure higher-wage jobs, and that trend is only likely to continue. (For an inside look at what this looks for real people up and down the employment ladder, see Education Week’s recent digital-skills profiles of workers at Delaware’s Christiana Care Health Sytem.) And experiential learning—project-based instruction, school-business and school-community partnerships, internships and apprenticeships—can help develop students develop qualities like “creativity, mental flexibility, and cultural agility” that will be resistant to automation, Brookings contends.

How to make it happen? Muro (who is far from alone in this stance) wants to see more computer science education in K-12, and he wants it to be more relatable to real-world applications and more accessible for girls and students of color.

“Skills-based hiring” could be a solution, but it would mean big changes in K-12 (and elsewhere.) The basic idea is that in a rapidly-changing labor market, a static credential earned at a single point in time, such as a high school diploma or college degree, may be less valuable to employers than a more flexible collection of certifications through which workers can demonstrate the specific skills they’ve acquired over time.

Let’s allow Muro to explain this one in his own words:

“Initiatives such as badging and the move towards competency- and mastery-based progressions are exactly the types of efforts that will be needed across the U.S. labor market. But a shift to skill-based hiring is going to also require a fundamental cultural change in how Americans view credentials in hiring. We have had decades of the diploma/degree as a standard credential, and skill-based hiring will be a significant, wholesale rethink of how American culture handles education...It will likely take large, high-visibility organizations like companies, government agencies, and non-profits to shift their hiring policies to value skills over credentials.”

Image: Getty

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.