Many of us who study change management are observing the impacts of the rapid development of smart machines on workplace dynamics. These machines will increase the accuracy of prediction and spare humans from repetitive work, leading to improved efficiency and faster decision-making. Additionally, past technological shifts have shown us that with new models of production and supervision there was a rapid increase in the demand for workers who could run, repair and improve the interface between workers and their machines, and sociologists surmise that this allowed for the development of a broad-based middle class. However, throughout our economic evolution technological innovation reduced the need for human labor by displacing many activities that were once central to the labor force. Many scholars are now suggesting that within the next ten years over 30-40% of the work done by people today will be handled by smart machines.
Human beings were here before the creation of the wheel, and when we look back on our progress it’s quite impressive. The overriding reality seems to suggest that in the long run machines replace inefficient human labor while creating unemployment turmoil in the short run. As we have seen in the recent election many people without a college education are angry that their jobs have been exported or eliminated altogether. Handing a pick and shovel to someone who has just been displaced by technology as a way of solving our infrastructure and unemployment problems won’t solve either issue. The formula for addressing these concerns hasn’t changed in the last hundred and fifty years. Abraham Lincoln recognized these disparities in economic opportunities when he signed the Land Grant College Act in 1865; thereby, creating public funding for educating returning soldiers throughout the country and assisting farming communities through outreach Extension services. In hindsight, this may have been Lincoln’s greatest contribution to the future economic well-being of the country. By providing the resources to produce a steady stream of educated workers to design and manage the first wave of industrialization, Lincoln recast the problem from one of potential unemployment for returning troops to one that addressed the opportunity for developing a professional working class.
Following World War II, President Roosevelt challenged Congress to pass the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly known as the GI Bill, to give those returning veterans the opportunity of resuming their education or technical training after discharge, or of taking a refresher or retraining course, tuition free with the opportunity to receive a monthly allowance while pursuing their studies. Heralded as one of the most significant pieces of legislation ever produced by the U.S. federal government, with large social, economic and political impacts, by 1956, 7.8 million of 16 million World War II veterans had participated in an education or training program. These opportunities for education and training paralleled significant technology expansion in the U.S. following the war. New inventions and the fabrication of new materials expanded the infrastructure and penetrated the marketplace. Without the training provisions for veterans to prepare them for the new work to be done, a very different scenario might have unfolded as millions of unskilled veterans flooded the marketplace unable to compete for the new jobs and activities.
The challenges we have today have their origin in the decision to institutionalize the post-secondary educational experience to one that ends upon graduation in your early twenties. With the velocity of change increasing as smart machines continue to displace large numbers of our present workforce, we should be viewing the educational process as a creative endeavor that a person pursues on a part-time basis throughout their working career. It’s our most important “infrastructure,” and it needs to be almost completely overhauled. The educational process should be incorporated into job descriptions, and the government should support that process by providing incentives for the private sector to invest in and support their employees’ pursuit a lifetime of learning and adapting to emerging opportunities. The latest version of the GI Bill, passed in 2008, gives veterans with active duty service on, or after September 11, 2001, enhanced educational benefits that cover more educational expenses, provide a living allowance, money for books and the ability to transfer unused educational benefits to spouses or children. These kinds of initiatives need to be tailored and sized to the broader community if we are to address this second industrial revolution.
So, in moving forward, our strategy should reflect what Lincoln and Roosevelt recognized as a necessity in the mid-19th and 20th centuries. By linking business, academic and governmental resources we can once more prepare a skilled workforce to match technological progress with its concomitant shifts in jobs and careers.