FutureWork Ryan O'Donnell

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There's no denying that we're living in an increasingly automatic world. And where things happen so seamlessly we don't even consider the work that goes into them.

A two-day FutureWork forum held by NC State's Institute for Emerging Issues this week ensured we all had a clear picture of automation's impact on work. According to keynote speaker and author Martin Ford, whose book "Rise of Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future" was named a No. 1 bestseller by The Financial Times last year, the annual number of hours of labor in the U.S. hasn't changed since 1998 despite that there are 40 million more people and a $3.5 trillion, or 42 percent, increase in business output.

Jobs are being displaced, and more than likely (thanks to Moore's Law) at a faster pace over time. 

But the Institute's mission isn't just to talk about pending issues affecting North Carolina industry. Its goal is to help companies of all sizes in the state do something about it. So as much as Ford's message is scary, the work already taking place and prescribed by a variety of experts gives some hope to companies that want to flourish both with technology and teams of people in place.

Day two of the conference was spent in teams of people considering the nuances of finance, education, energy, healthcare, rural communities and governments in order to give some recommendations for the Institute's work in 2016. 

While we await their recommendations and initiatives, here are some key ways our state may survive an influx of machines and algorithms:

Education must be more versatile.
If half of today's occupations are gone in 40 years, one of the biggest impacts will be on education. NC State economics professor Mike Walden says educational systems will need to be flexible enough to downsize programs where there are declining numbers of jobs and upsize those that are emerging, and in the right timing to not have too much supply or demand. 

Also, liberal education is important, says University of North Carolina Asheville Chancellor Mary Grant. Tech skills aren't helpful if a person can't communicate or engage with others or in teams. 

Unemployment policy might need to shift to account for retraining workers rather than helping people through downturns.
Professor Walden made the point that today's unemployment system is still configured to respond to recessionary periods, when a factory worker was laid off during an economic downturn and paid a portion of wages until a recovery. If workers are not unemployed by recession, but instead because their occupation is taken over by technology, then a different type of assistance might be required. 

He hopes the Institute will begin to track what he calls "technological unemployment", data about occupations and hiring trends to begin to discover warning signs for displaced jobs and new ones being created. 

Understand that many technologies make jobs better. 
Despite that Automated Insights generated 1.5 billion pieces of content for the likes of The Associated Press, Yahoo and Comcast last year alone, not a single job has been sacrificed during its nearly eight years in business. Robbie Allen, CEO and founder of the Durham startup, says that most of the reporters that previously covered the now automated content are thankful for the technology. It's adding to their capacity as journalists, while providing a valuable service to readers. Automated Insights allows The AP to cover the quarterly earnings of more than 3,000 companies.

Automated Insights is actually a net creator of jobs, Allen says. He's hired more than 50 people so far.  

Entrepreneurship is the only safe bet.
Several entrepreneurs were involved in the sessions as examples of rethinking work: Ryan O'Donnell of the Raleigh startup EmployUs (pictured above)Karl Rectanus of Lea(R)n, Vivek Wadhwa, former RTP entrepreneur, Duke professor and now internationally-known columnist, and Jaylen Bledsoe, a child prodigy who at age 17 consults with corporations on how to reach his generation. 

But Allen talked specifically about the impact of entrepreneurs in defining the future of work. He ended his time on stage with the bold statement that only entrepreneurs are "futureproof". It's something he emphasizes even to his young children. If they a meaningful occupation that also lasts, entrepreneurship is "the pinnacle of creativity."

He left the crowd with this: "I can guarantee that if you're an entrepreneur, you have much more control over your destiny than just about any occupation."

Bring new policymakers/people to the table
Phillip Auerswald, a Washington D.C. entrepreneurship researcher and author, advises that we should "favor incumbents less" when it comes to rethinking policy for the future of work. Also, listen to entrepreneurs—even if they won't come to meets or get fatigued over policy-talk.

"It is vitally important for any government that wants to see entrepreneurship flourish to find spaces where the new can exist and thrive," Auerswald says. 

Embracing the sharing economy 
Uber, Airbnb, Freelancer.com and TaskRabbit have introduced new ways to make money and to use skill sets to hundreds of thousands of people around the world. Devin Fidler of Palo Alto's Institute for the Future calls it "human task routing", where software empowers people to fill "disaggregated" jobs previously not available or accessible to them. 

For companies hoping to continue to advance technology and create jobs, they'll need to keep innovating smarter machines that fill the roles of organizations/managers, similar to how Uber works, overseeing thousands of people with little to no human interaction. 

New programs to address underserved populations
In Austin, a new tutoring program by the city and University of Texas is pairing up the smartest people from companies like Google, IBM, National Instrument and more with 40,000 students over the next 10 years to better prepare them for the next generation of careers. 

In North Carolina, a new program by CityStartupLabs in Charlotte is teaching young black Millennial males to be entrepreneurs. Code the Dream is teaching immigrants to code in Raleigh and Durham. 

Girl Develop It RDU, which teaches (mostly) women programming skills, now has more than 1,700 members since 2012. It has held more than 100 workshops and classes and kept the price at about $10/hour to be inclusive to all. And Fayetteville Tech Community College's iCar program is training students to repair the newest generation of vehicles, which are equipped with anywhere from 50 to 150 computer systems. After starting with 15 people in August 2014, in March, 144 students will begin. 

These programs are showing promise, but more will be required to counter the impact of displaced occupations.

Think differently about HR
The numbers of people disengaged with their work and discontent with their jobs is staggering. The mission of Raleigh's EmployUs is to find better matches between people and jobs by democratizing the process of recruiting, and mostly for tech and startup companies. Anyone can recommend someone else for a job using the platform, and earn cash rewards if they do so. 

At Fidelity Investments, new career counseling centers help workers find the best career path within the company to reduce churn, and a new program allows employees to use a portion of their salary to pay off student loans.

Recruiting has changed at this large corporation too. A new program called reacHIRE recruits women who'd like to get back to work and learn new skills after having a child. They take part in a boot camp and then get a six-month paid assignment before placed in a full-time job. The first class graduated in December 2015.