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Labor Day

How work, opportunity, economic security for all happens in an age of technological change

September 3, 2019
Estherville News

Editor's note: Staff Writer Amy H. Peterson attended the Poynter Institute's Future of Work fellowship in late 2018. This article is part of her continuing work exploring the workplace and local employment numbers.

It's Labor Day. We're inundated with reports that the economy is great. It is great for the top 10 percent of earners. For everyone else, there are risks, according to the Brookings Institute among many other sources.

What does this mean for us?

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Iowa's employment numbers month to month look tremendous: under three percent unemployment and demand in health care, financial and technology jobs, according to data from Iowa Workforce Development.

Behind those numbers, are many layers to the low unemployment numbers. One factor is the number of part time workers in the current economy. A second factor is what employment professionals call a "skills gap," the difference between a worker's set of skills, experience, education and talent, and the skills necessary for an in-demand career.

According to the Society of Human Resources Management's late 2017 report, "Reports of the skills gap have been greatly exaggerated."

Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend said there are 44,000 Iowans looking for work and more than 60,000 job openings across the state. Townsend said the barrier to people finding work and employers finding people to fill the jobs is the skills gap.

There is also the issue of jobs offered being part time, wages that don't cover basic expenses, and the number of Iowans who have pursued education beyond high school for something, but that something does not meet the needs of the workforce.

In terms of wage growth in Iowa, only high-wage earners, making $41.53 or more hourly, have seen meaningful wage growth in the 10 years since the Great Recession was considered over. According to Natalie Veldhouse, research association for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project, job growth in Iowa is slowing down, and many working Iowa households are unable to meet basic needs despite having one or more full-time workers in the house.

Surveys do show employers are struggling to hire and find qualified people. However, according to SHRM, "The solution is in their hands: provide the training needed to get the workers they want."

More than 90 percent of job openings are for people with experience. This puts job seekers in the conundrum of needing experience to get the job, and needing a job to gain experience.

Company-provided training has been decreasing in the last decade, though formal apprenticeships are on the upswing. Future Ready Iowa is one growing, statewide program that is intentionally seeking ways to bring skilled workers into Iowa's workforce. Iowa has over 856 certified apprenticeships that graduate more than 1,500 people per year.

Automation and the rise of artificial intelligence have made life easier in many ways. From robots adding to the precision of a surgical team's work on an ailing body to asking Alexa about today's weather, the theory goes that we have more time to attend to the important things while computers do things for us.

At this time, however, 47 percent of employees in the U.S. are at risk for having their jobs computerized. For those with a high school diploma or less education, 45-85 percent of the jobs they hold will be automated as soon as 2024.

This doesn't mean the world will be overrun with robots. Compassion jobs: health aides, social workers, nurses, therapists are facing an increased demand for their skills in working with people. However, the pay is not rising to meet that demand, according to employment data from WorkingNation.

Soon, a job may not be a nine to five or seven to 11 or come with benefits. By 2027, more jobs than not may be part of the gig economy in which freelancing is the norm. The gift of this, if it comes with a living wage, may be time. One can work from home, from the car, from a coffee shop, library, or co-working center.

So, jobs are changing, wages for most are stagnant, and college costs are careening out of reach. In 2017, there were 1.8 million fewer college students across the U.S. than there were at peak college attendance, according to the U.S. Dept. of Education.

The problem of a skills gap does not always have straightforward solutions. Training more engineers, raising the number of creating designers and producing more data analysts, in short creating more workers with specialized skills is not the whole answer. Instead of technology and AI taking over jobs, roles will be reconfigured and certain tasks of an existing job will be taken over by machines.

As intelligent systems take over paperwork responsibilities, nurses and teachers, for example, could spend more time on patient care and paying individual attention to students. Skills like empathy and communication will rise while administrative skills will decline.

Tony Wagner, senior research fellow at the Learning Policy Institute, said, "We still talk about a knowledge economy, but the reality is that the world is moving beyond it. What we have now is an innovation economyThere is no longer a competitive advantage in simply knowing more than other people, because Google knows everything. What the world cares about is not how much you know, but what you can do with it."

What are some of the answers? Increase learning by doing. Apprenticeships, which Wagner calls as experiential as learning can get. Shifting focus from institutions to individuals: workplaces can adapt their systems to develop a broader range of skills within individuals.

Veldhouse, the research associate for the Iowa Policy Project, said, "The hard work of Iowans ought to be celebrated through public policy that raises wages along with worker productivity. This would allow wages to keep up with the cost of living. Better public policy would protect workers on the job and ensure a dignified retirement."



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