Retrain or Retreat: The Next Battlefield for U.S. Manufacturing
Harold L. (Hal) Sirkin | Forbes
The concept of “lifelong learning” has gained widespread popularity in recent decades as a way to keep senior citizens intellectually engaged.
But how about lifelong learning as a way to keep people employed, especially those in manufacturing? Think of it as learning for the sake of economic survival.
More than one expert is predicting that robots and artificial intelligence will make work all but obsolete in the future. “Some entrepreneurs such as Tesla Inc. founder Elon Musk predict so little human work will be left that a universal social safety net will be needed to maintain economic order,” the Wall Street Journal’s Vanessa Fuhrmans reported last month.
Such notions are gaining currency. For several years now, various publications, ranging from The Guardian and The Atlantic to Forbes, have been publishing stories about the possibilities of a future “world without work.”
This is somewhat misleading, as it’s not work that may become obsolete, but rather our skills, as the digital revolution speeds ahead.
Unfortunately, the current educational system, which was designed for the generation that came of age during the 1940s and 1950s, and for the baby boomers that followed, can’t fix this problem. The only way to fix it is to take the words “lifelong learning” seriously, even literally, and embrace continuing education as an integral and necessary part of our adult lives.
The nature of work clearly is changing — and dramatically so. The pace of change is increasing as well, and may even accelerate. In such an environment, keeping up will require more than occasional refresher courses and attendance at professional development seminars.
If you were starting a career 40 years ago, you probably believed — correctly, in many cases — that you’d be able to do whatever you were trained to do for your entire life. That’s no longer true.
Today, technologies that were considered science fiction just a decade ago — 3D printing, artificial intelligence (AI), drones and driverless vehicles, among others — are becoming realities. And there’s more to come.
Our educational system was structured to maintain the status quo. Students spend 12 years in the classroom — with perhaps an additional two years at a community college or in an apprenticeship program, or four to six years at a university — and then are turned loose to apply the skills they’ve acquired for the next 40-plus years, until they retire.
That’s the world of the aging auto mechanic who can perform magic on a classic muscle car, but is in the dark when it comes to the computers and sensors that control today’s vehicles. That’s the world we lived in yesterday, not the world of today.
What lies ahead will be even more challenging. The world of the future will require us to adapt to constant technological change. As a result, many workers, including (and perhaps especially) those involved in manufacturing, will have to fully reboot their skills several times over the course of their careers. Even with increased emphasis on STEM courses (science, technology, engineering and math), the U.S. education system can’t accommodate this new normal.
By necessity, the task will fall on private business — and maybe that’s where it belongs, since business has the most to gain from keeping skills in line with technological advances and the most to lose if skills don’t keep up.
Most companies, however, aren’t prepared for this challenge. In fact, as Timothy Taylor, managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, has noted, employers have been cutting back in this area at a time when there’s more need than ever for on-the-job training. In fact, according to research BCG conducted in 2012, less than half of the U.S. manufacturing executives we surveyed said their companies were working at the time with community colleges on such programs, ignoring a valuable resource.
Which Leaves Us Where?
Harry J. Holzer, a professor at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy and a former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, described the challenge in a recent Brookings Institution paper. The big concern, he wrote, is that “automation will occur so rapidly and so broadly that many or most American workers — and certainly the young — will have to repeatedly retool themselves for new work.”
That’s the challenge. The question is, are American companies, workers, policy makers and educators aware of the magnitude and urgency of the challenge? And will they be prepared to meet it?
Some companies are moving in the right direction. In a few innovative cases, they’re even collaborating with competitors and firms in allied industries to train workers, rather than going the traditional route: waiting for others to do the training and then trying to pick them off.
Call it what you want. For U.S. manufacturing, it’s retrain or retreat: Lifelong learning will determine the survivability of many jobs and companies in the new digital era.
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