Readers: this blog is set in the future (sometime after the year 2020). Each entry assumes there has been a 5th revolution in the US — the Revenge Revolution. More about the Revenge Revolution, a list of earlier revolutions and the author, Entry #1. 

Periodically I write a “sense check” to assess whether in the next few years, a revolution in the US is still possible or whether the entire exercise is based on a statistical aberration — i.e., a roughly 50-year cycle between major upheavals in the US.  With all that’s happened lately in Washington, I wrote a special sense check, Entry #332.

This week’s Entry continues the series about preparing for the upcoming “technology tsunami” that will have a major impact on the US economy.  The series starts Entry #319. 

The need for on-going education and training of workers is nothing new. Who’s been responsible in the past for such training? Until about the mid-1990’s or early 2000’s, the employing organization seemed to be the principal source of on-going training.

In some cases, employee training was done on the organization’s premises; in other cases, employees were encouraged to attend classes outside. Expenses for such classes usually were reimbursed by the organization. Based on my experience, mostly in manufacturing-based companies, the training seemed to focus on procedures and systems unique to that company.

What has changed within the companies in the last 20-25 years is how machines and support equipment operate. There is ever-growing integration of software programs to help manage all aspects of machine operation, movement of material and the flow of information.

While some features of the software programs might be unique to the organization, the fundamental components of a given software program, or suite of programs, are the same. Understanding the fundamentals of software programs has created two classes of workers:

  1. A group, generally younger, who are now more mobile. Because these workers understand the fundamentals of software, they can carry that knowledge to another organization and not face as steep learning curve, thereby contributing more quickly than workers in the past;
  2. A group, generally older, who were trained in the organization’s approach before many software programs were integrated into daily operations. These workers become far less mobile and, despite their experience, less valuable to the existing organization. The “reduced-value” phenomenon applies to both blue-collar and white-collar workers. Unfortunately, some of these “reduced-value” workers have 25 to 30 years remaining before retirement. This group will be the most negatively affected by the technology tsunami.

What does society do with existing “reduced-value” workers…and ideally implement plans to minimize the number of such workers in the future? Back to school! But, can you really teach an old dog, or a middle-age dog, new tricks?

The stumbling block for many of these workers seems to be never having learned basic math. While one does not need to know calculus to understand how to use computer programs effectively, one does need to know basic algebra. Programs are basically built are conditional statements – if A, then B, etc. Understanding the approach applies not only to Excel-type programs but word-processing programs as well.

What about people who just don’t “get” math, even basic addition and subtraction taught in grammar school? Obviously, not everyone learns the same way and not everyone is skilled at every subject. However, my guess is at least half the people who claim “not to get math” would “get it” if math were taught in a way more understandable to them.

Without having completed any formal research, I’ll bet there are at least three approaches used to teaching math. And one of those approaches probably will work on most people. So, for the “I-don’t-get-math” group, let’s take away the stigma of not understanding the traditional approach to teaching math, and try using the other approaches. Just visualize the smiles on faces when “I-don’t-get-math” students move to the “I-get-math” category.

Will all these students become math wizards? No, but once the basics are understood, we…societal we…might be shocked at how many in this group progress to basic algebra, and beyond.

What about people who despite different approaches to teaching, never “get” math? How do we prepare them for the tech tsunami? Or, what if someone just doesn’t want to learn?

A certain percentage of people won’t learn, and the consequences are the same whether one is unable to learn or chooses not to learn. The consequences in all likelihood will be a lower-paying service-type job. For those who try, but can’t learn, unfortunately the consequence are the same.

Any time society has been disrupted by technology — printing presses replacing scribes, machinery replacing farm hands, robots replacing assembly workers…and other examples – some people are left behind economically. While a society-funded safety net can provide some assistance, a large percentage of people in this category will fall several rungs on the economic ladder.

OK, you say, I’ll buy the argument that we should be training more workers for the tech tsunami. But who should pay for the training, much of which seems to be remedial? Why should taxpayers pay for the bill and let the companies off the hook? Shouldn’t companies that are laying off workers have an obligation to retrain these workers?

If one looks at other countries for guidance, many industrialized countries, especially in Europe, have laws that penalize, or even prevent companies from relocating or arbitrarily dismissing employees. The US has no such laws. As a result, companies are not penalized for relocating and leaving behind infrastructure installed specifically to help the company and/or leaving behind a loyal workforce with some skills that need updating.

In many states, North Carolina and South Carolina are but two examples, “economic development” is defined primarily as enticing other companies to relocate operations from the Midwest or Northeast to North Carolina or South Carolina. Incentives thrown at companies to relocate border on the ridiculous, but almost always include taxpayer-funded training for employees.

Yet the same “economic development” efforts often ignore, or even discourage, albeit possibly inadvertently, entrepreneurs from starting companies or offering no meaningful incentives to smaller company businesses trying to expand. If any incentives are offered to entrepreneurs, the “incentives” often consist of an “opportunity” to locate in some rehabbed building at a lower rent. While the reduced rent is nice public-relations strategy for politicians, most start-up businesses are starved for capital and capable key executives.

In the near-term, laws preventing companies from relocating and/or laws preventing states or cities from offering incentives for relocation are not likely to be implemented. Even if passed, there likely would be a drawn-out court challenge. A more effective approach to encourage existing companies to stay put might be to help the company analyze costs and determine if updating skills of employees and implementing other cost-reduction systems might be more effective than relocating, especially relocating operations outside the US.

Encouraging companies to stay put and retrain workers gain momentum in the next few years, especially as the technology tsunami becomes more apparent. While the US 2020 presidential election is 18 months away, many Democratic candidates seem to be discussing how to help rebuild the American middle class by leveraging new technology rather than the Trump approach of propping up industries on the decline – coal, e.g.

Programs to help update skills of existing workers could be very “hands-on,” akin to how many infrastructure projects were initiated in the 1930’s under New Deal WPA. Such national WPA-like programs are even more likely after the technology tsunami hits and/or after the country experiences the Revenge Revolution.

Programs to help mitigate the technology tsunami, programs to implement the evolving Green New Deal and other such ideas present a great opportunity for the US to create sustained economic growth. Sustained economic growth, however, can only be achieved with a high labor-force participation rate…and a high participation rate in a technology-tsunami world can be achieved only with an educated workforce.