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The robots are coming, but not necessarily for your job

Hello colleagues,

Preliminary findings have been released from an M.I.T. "Work of the Future" Task Force. The meta-analysis findings and recommendations from the research of twenty Boston University researchers may be of interest. Here are a few tantalizing bits from an online article today from radio station WBUR in Boston (bolding is mine):

  • "...the likelihood that robots, automation and artificial intelligence (AI) will completely wipe out large swaths of the workforce is exaggerated"
  • "There's no doubt technology will impact jobs, but researchers say there is a larger concern when it comes to the future of work: Increasing inequality. And the impact of that inequality has given workers legitimate concerns about the role of technology in the future."
  • "From 1973 to 2016, labor productivity rose by 75%, but workers' compensation only rose by 12%, the report found. And the stagnant earnings hit people of color particularly hard."
  • "Technology has contributed to "employment polarization" by making highly educated workers more productive and less educated workers easier to replace"
  • "---technology isn't the only factor in this polarization. Trade, tax policies and the weakening of collective bargaining have also contributed to inequality"
  • "...a critical challenge for the future is not necessarily a lack of jobs, but the low quality of jobs. For example, according to the report, 92% of Americans born in 1940 earned more money than their parents, but only about half of people born in 1980 can say the same when adjusted for inflation."
  • One of the preliminary report's major recommendations: "To that end, the report recommends more skills training, particularly for workers without college degrees. The report points to community colleges, apprenticeship programs and online education as important focus areas for such training investments."
  • "The U.S. should also focus on becoming leaders in technology by investing heavily in AI, machine learning and robotics, the report said. This is an area where China has already made great strides."

Your reactions here to this preliminary report, of course, are welcome. You may wonder why part of the last bullet is in bold. Upcoming in the Integrating Technology and Program Management groups sometime in the next couple of months is a week-long expert panel discussion on Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality and their possible roles in adult basic skills education. Stay tuned for more.

David J. Rosen, Moderator

LINCS CoP Integrating Technology and Program Management grous


Edward Latham's picture
One hundred

As a mathematical logical type of processor, I look at data trends going on and try to determine what story they tell. I try to avoid the whole, "It feels like .... because I think that ..." reasoning that naturally comes to all of us. David's bullet point highlights of that preliminary report are very much in line with both my mathematical logical data processing and my more emotional logical processing in terms of the job market, it's trends and challenges. 

"From 1973 to 2016, labor productivity rose by 75%, but workers' compensation only rose by 12%, the report found. And the stagnant earnings hit people of color particularly hard."

Although I may not have had these specific numbers, it has been apparent that even if productivity was stagnant, our increases in compensation for work has not even kept up with inflation over any time period since the early 70s. For almost half a century, the ratio of cost of living to wages earned has continued to become more of an unfavorable ratio and has to be a major contributor to the rise in poverty we are all experiencing in our communities. If you then look at the ratio of productivity and reported profits from those employers, we see the opposite effect in which as productivity increases the profits increase at least as much. So, we have a direct relation between productiivity of workers and employers profits while having an inverse relation between wages and cost of living. This gap produced has only grown in my lifetime and it gets me wondering what the end results could be and if any of those might be positive for workers?

"...a critical challenge for the future is not necessarily a lack of jobs, but the low quality of jobs. For example, according to the report, 92% of Americans born in 1940 earned more money than their parents, but only about half of people born in 1980 can say the same when adjusted for inflation."

This information was another important point shared that resonated with me. With the coorelations I mention  above, it is completely understandable that the quality of jobs available have declined. It would be interesting if this report also looked at the increasing demand on specialist and how much their income differs from their parents income. Without any data to back it up, my emotional logic has me feeling that we may be paying our specialists even more for their servieces today, because their skills help remove positions that used to tie up many of the human costs of generating profits. I have seen trends of these well paying sepcialist jobs becoming more numerous while access to these specialist fields seems to be becoming more fleeting. We used to have a cultural model that encouraged, "Everyone can do most anything with hard work, determination and persistance!" Today, there is much more of a feeling that access to successful employment is more a matter of either genetic or social luck. Take programming for instance. If you polled people about their perceived ability to become a computer programer you would likely get very few people feeling that computer programming is within their reach or ability. This is a very stark contrast to the increase in ease of use of programming languages and the resources available for ANYONE to feel supported in learning how to program. Even when agencies like MIT spend decades on development, training and promotion of an increasingly easy and powerful set of tools (See Scratch, MIT App Inventor and a host of other wonderful tools they continue to evolve) our social perspective is that programming is only accessible by a very few special people and even then only accessible with a large economic and time investment. The reality is that support exists for many people to start learning aspects of programming, from home, with only a digital device and Internet connection as a cost. 

None of us like the negative trends we see in terms of employment, people's quality of life, and maybe even in options we percieve are available. I am hopeful that reports like the one David shared help stimulate not only discussions to process what the report might really be saying; I am hopeful it begins more discussions about how we start to at least slow down these very negative coorelations that are driving more and more into poverty and a sense of individual hopelessness. 

Michael Cruse's picture
One hundred

I want to draw readers' attention to another report, from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, looking at ways that we can prepare low-income workers to weather the changing economy.   Positioning Low-Income Workers to Succeed in a Changing Economy looks at what tomorrow's workers need to succeed, as well as  efforts to help workers build skills, careers and greater economic stability.  

The report includes twelve case studies across three (3) categories.  These categories include: 1) strategies that prepare young people for jobs that provide family-sustaining wages; 2) responses to concerns about worker power and agency amid a rising tide of gig and contract work; and 3) state and local policies that address wages, work and a changing economic environment.

These case studies offer an opportunity for us to think about better preparing low-income learners for the potential realities we keep reading about in pieces like the one David shared. 


Mike Cruse

Career Pathways Moderator

Paul Jurmo's picture

Hello, Colleagues, 

A few responses to the points raised in the report cited by David below: 
  • Impact of AI on US jobs: While it appears that AI will eliminate many repetitive jobs, many other jobs that require problem-solving, creativity (e.g., plumber) will continue to be needed.  These are occupations that many adults who have limitations in English proficiency and other basic skills can be trained to perform.  These in many cases fall into the skilled trades category that workforce planners have been telling us (for decades) that our workforce needs. Many of these jobs pay well.
  • “Inequality” is now very much in the news.  “On Point” (WBUR) has a recent series of podcasts on the present and future of capitalism, which discuss the factors (e.g., automation and export of jobs that formerly provided living wages and benefits, decline in labor unions, reduced investment in education, declines in public health and basic healthcare, ….)  that have contributed to the growth in income inequality in the US.  Income inequality  is also now being discussed by the Democratic presidential candidates.  The Open Door Collective has been a voice in the adult basic education field that has raised this issue and begun suggesting ways that our field can work with other stakeholders to help various populations of adults who are challenged  by basic skills limitations to improve their economic security.
  • These recent reports and discussions are the latest in a series of similar discussions that go back to the 1980s.  Various research and policy organizations have talked about the changing nature of work and the potential for a bifurcated workforce (divided by worker ability to respond to workplace changes). Our field formerly had a robust discussion of these issues (much of it triggered by federal leadership and support through such programs as the National Workplace Literacy Program, the National Institute for Literacy’s Equipped for the Future Initiative, and more-recent career pathway efforts in green jobs and other areas).   
  • I am currently writing two articles for upcoming issues of the Adult Literacy Education journal that touch on these issues and include suggestions for how our field might work with other stakeholders to expand the  quality and quantity of learning opportunities  for adults  who want to improve their economic security.  These articles build on the work (viewable at )  that the Open Door Collective’s Labor and Workforce Development Issues Group has been doing since early 2018. 
Paul Jurmo