What is the Future of Work?: A Conversation with Tracie Neuhaus and Michele Prichard
SCG's Back to the Future blog series is a collection of conversations with philanthropic leaders exploring the key trends that shape the contours of the future. This series aims to expand our thinking on various issue areas and provide funders with the insights necessary to maximize their impact.
What is the future of work? How are governments and businesses preparing for change? What is philanthropy’s role in helping workers and society at large manage this transition with the least possible disruption while maximizing the potential benefits?
At SCG’s 2019 Annual Conference: Foresight Philanthropy, we invited Tracie Neuhaus, Senior Manager at Monitor Institute by Deloitte, and Michele Prichard, Senior Director for Strategic Initiatives at the Liberty Hill Foundation, to participate in two sessions regarding the future of our workforce. In “Great Scott! Back to the Future of Work” and “Labor, Climate Change, and a Just Transition: Building a Future for People and the Planet,” Tracie and Michele respectively tackled the prevailing myths and trends emerging from our changing economy. They also addressed the potential implications these shifts will have in exacerbating income inequality with our most vulnerable workers and communities.
We sat with Tracie and Michele post-conference to discuss the shifts happening with our workforce and addressed philanthropy's role in spearheading innovation for an equitable future.
What are the factors most likely to shape our future workforce and economy?
MP: The most high-profile changes are artificial intelligence and the urgent need for a shift to a low-carbon economy, raising the possibility that many of today’s jobs might not exist in five or ten years. We need to be prepared to address the challenges that will result from the loss of these positions. Simultaneously, these technological and energy resource changes will also produce new jobs that require different skill sets. To fill these roles and keep up with these rapid technological breakthroughs, we will need to focus on developing our future workers while also continuing the reskilling of our current workforce. Lastly, the notion of a “Just Transition” will also play a significant role as we begin shifting our energy systems from a fossil fuel-based, carbon-intensive economic model into — what we must become — a zero-carbon, 100% clean, renewable energy model.
TN: I want to elaborate on Michele’s first response because it captures the central tension around artificial intelligence, precisely what we know as the “myth of automation.” Automation will not necessarily replace workers as much as it’s going to fundamentally change what work looks like for front-line workers in many industries. Let’s think about how a manufacturing or construction worker’s job might change. Rather than having a routine responsibility in a factory, workers will be responsible for interacting with advanced equipment and problem-solving in real-time. They will be working side-by-side with these robots to program them and address issues critically and creatively as they arise. Workers will need skills to become more technologically fluid to interact with machines.
Another trend affecting our workforce is the development of the “gig economy.” I think people often associate things like freelance work and independent contractors as inherently harmful byproducts of our economy. But the reality is that this is what employment looks like for many people now: some people have a small side-business, others drive for rideshare services, some rent their apartment, and many do this all while they have a full-time job. Increasingly, I think we are going to see workers piece together their gigs into an employment portfolio. However, we will need to address the negative consequences of this shift. We need to reconsider the idea that people have just one full-time, 40-hour a week job, and that’s what qualifies as a “good job.” In the future, I think we will see a more flexible economy where everyone will begin to have a diverse employment portfolio.
Also, I think the place where work happens will change. For example, most people believe that most construction work happens “on-site,” with workers living and working in that specific area. However, Deloitte’s research around the construction and manufacturing sectors shows that technological developments blur this geographic assumption. We see construction companies build modular homes off-site and then ship that home elsewhere. Alongside the rise of remote positions, we might see a change in where companies offer jobs and how industries restructure themselves to adapt.
What opportunities do funders have in preparing our future workforce?
MP: Funders have an opportunity to invest in research that helps us better understand the most significant economic drivers influencing the changing nature of work. The truth is we don’t have reliable data.
TN: That’s an important point. Our data is outdated, and we don't fully understand how jobs are changing, how work is changing, and how it impacts different populations. We need help solving this big data piece to understand the bigger picture and identify who will be affected most and when.
MP: Another opportunity funders have is investing in organizations working to reskill the workforce through training and education programs. We need to invest in initiatives that create job pathways in historically disenfranchised communities. For example, apprenticeship programs, such as the Utility Pre-Craft Trainee Program developed by the LA DWP and Local 11 of the IBEW, have great success. Employers are not only paying people to learn a skill, but they are also committing to employ them once they complete their education and training. Some go a step further and target these jobs to the communities that need them most, including low-income populations, geographically isolated communities, disabled veterans, formerly incarcerated individuals, and others.
The conversations around universal basic income also present a compelling opportunity to support our workers and other individuals who might be automated “out” of the job market in the future. This idea pre-figures that today’s jobs may not exist and that there might not be enough jobs to employ the population at the level it needs for income security. To maintain economic stability and minimize the impact on our most vulnerable communities, advocates are promoting the idea of a universal basic income, along with moving the entire workforce towards a family-supporting living wage. There’s still significant work to be done on this front. Still, I’d encourage funders interested in these policy proposals to begin investing in research in this area and support organizations working to build momentum.
TN: I also want to tackle this problem of employment but from a new angle for philanthropy. When we think about the workforce and the employment ecosystem, we think of the supply side, the demand side, and how matching traditionally happens between workers and employers. Philanthropy has historically focused on funding workforce organizations, workforce intermediaries, and the nonprofit sector to work with employers and hire people. Many foundations believe it’s not their place to interface with employers. There’s an opportunity for philanthropy to work more directly with the private sector to shift employer behaviors and address the emerging issues in our workforce.
An example of this dynamic emerged from Deloitte’s work with several Boston organizations that’ve spent time interviewing employers. While most funding understandably goes toward workforce organizations, there was a collective sentiment that if funders are looking for employers to behave differently, they also need to find ways to listen to and help employers and nonprofits who are working to develop innovative programs. The truth is that employers are often scrounging trying to close gaps in the system and can’t always invest in new programs or solutions.
MP: Do you believe this requires philanthropy to make a shift in its approach to funding?
TN: Employers need to move beyond conceptualizing workforce funding as a charity and begin to consider how engaging different talent sources and other organizations can be good for business. The scale of the problem, particularly in California, is so vast that even if you had all these workforce organizations trying to address the problem together, it’s not enough. Employers are significant leverage points in the system. Funders should consider working with them more directly to fund and seed innovative programs that will address these issues from various angles.
What can funders do to prioritize the needs of low-income communities, communities of color, and other affected populations to ensure that our transition is equitable?
MP: Foremost, I believe philanthropy needs to collaborate with and fund groups that come directly from the communities they wish to support. Because community leaders hold so much knowledge and wisdom, they need to be equal partners in figuring out their future direction. I encourage funders to engage with advocacy organizations, unions, elected officials, and other significant stakeholders to think about policies that support families and children in becoming healthy, productive members of our society.
Additionally, many of our public systems are not working the way they’re supposed to, and philanthropy has historically come in and tried to fill in the gaps with the latest innovative ideas. Instead, I would like to see philanthropy increase its investment in programs that leverage public sector spending. Philanthropy should be strategic about how, with our limited dollars, we can leverage the influence of government purchasing power and spending to achieve much bigger systems change for our historically disenfranchised communities.
TN: I agree with Michele. Often, we focus on specific communities’ deficits and create programs that don’t recognize their assets and strengths. There is this pervasive idea that low-income communities don’t know how to make progress. In reality, they can be some of the most resourceful and innovative people around because they’ve had to figure out how to make ends meet and provide for their families. Instead of saying, “I’ve got the answer, and we’re going to do another training,” how can we uplift the great ideas that are coming from the communities themselves? We need to refocus our premise on building from the ground up by giving communities the tools they need to help themselves.
If you would like additional reading on the future of work, review our “Great Scott! Back to the Future of Work” presentation, which debunks common myths around our changing workforce and includes Deloitte’s case study on supporting workers in the age of automation. We also recommend The Climate Equity Network’s report “A Roadmap to an Equitable Low-Carbon Future: Four Pillars for a Just Transition.”