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Congress Confronts Challenges of Robotics for US Workforce

November 3, 2021 by Tom Ramstack

WASHINGTON — The COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating a workforce trend toward robotics that kept a congressional panel guessing Wednesday about how to meet the challenges it represents.

While some long-time jobs are replaced with machines, others that keep the machinery operating are emerging, according to lawmakers from the House Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth.

However, in many cases, the American workforce lacks the skills to keep pace with the new technologies, they said.

“We’re really here dealing with the reality that change is hard,” said Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Ohio.

Among the hard realities is the widening income gap between workers who are prepared for the changes and those who are not ready, witnesses at the U.S. House hearing said. They typically need high-level skills in biotechnology, computer science and artificial intelligence.

Proposals in Congress for upgrading workers’ skills would put more funding into apprenticeships, community colleges and workforce development projects.

Some lawmakers recommend a displacement assistance program to provide income to workers who lose their jobs but are enrolled in training for other employment.

Another proposal would establish government-backed “Lifelong Learning Accounts.” Similar to tax-deferred 401(k) retirement accounts, participating employers could match employee contributions to pay for education and training intended to improve their productivity and job retention.

The hearing comes weeks after a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report projected automation would contribute to job losses in 19 out of the 30 occupations the agency says will endure the biggest employment declines in the next decade.

More than a quarter million secretarial and administrative assistant jobs are likely to become obsolete, the agency reported. About 85,000 fewer manufacturing industry fabricators and assemblers are expected to be employed by 2030 compared to 2020.

Months before the Bureau of Labor Statistics report, the Association for Advancing Automation said in a press release that the pandemic was posing a long-term threat to many jobs. It was creating worker shortages and higher labor costs, which compels employers to automate more service-sector jobs.

The U.S.-based automation trade association reported that robot orders in the first quarter of 2021 rose 20% over a year earlier. Second quarter orders were up 67% from the same period in 2020.   

One of the witnesses at the House hearing was Brent Orrell, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute public policy foundation. He cautioned against losing “people-facing” skills in the push for a more technologically-sophisticated workforce.

“Technology’s impact on the economy and workers is paradoxical,” Orrell told The Well News. “On one hand, the proliferation of advanced technology means increasing demand for technical skills and worker fluency in using high-tech tools. On the other, as technology acts to automate routine tasks, the labor market demand for ‘people-facing’ skills continues to grow.”

He recommended early education dedicated toward jobs in a high-tech workforce but not at a cost of sacrificing people skills.

“In fact, if you listen to employers, noncognitive skills like collaboration, communication, teamwork, critical thinking, and adaptability are usually at the top of their lists of concerns,” he said.

Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., chairman of the Select Committee on Economic Disparity, agreed collaboration was important but wanted a role for government in it.

“American prosperity has always been some kind of partnership, some kind of public/private joint venture, between the public sector and the private sector,” Himes said.

Zoë Baird, president of the Markle Foundation, suggested that lawmakers avoid overlooking the 70% of the workforce that has not graduated from college with a four-year bachelor’s degree.

She said they represent a largely untapped talent pool.

“There simply are not enough good jobs to draw on the potential of those workers,” Baird said.

The New York-based Markle Foundation promotes information technology as a way of addressing health care and national security problems.

Tom can be reached at [email protected]

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