Delivering shared prosperity for workers in a rapidly changing economy

Job seekers take part in a professional placement network focus group exercise at the Workforce Alliance Career Center in West Palm Beach, Florida December 2, 2010. The November 2010 employment situation economic indicator numbers will be released early December 3.  REUTERS/Joe Skipper   (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS EMPLOYMENT SOCIETY) - GM1E6C30HT301

In and around Washington these days, think tanks and policy institutions are awash in projects and discussions about the “future of work.” On one side, pessimists suggest that mass numbers of workers could be displaced by robots and artificial intelligence technologies. On the other, optimists point to the historical role of innovation in creating millions of jobs in brand new fields. Amid all that, the trends of sluggish wage growth, an expanding contingent workforce, and diminishing power among American workers prompt continued experimentation and debate around ideas like universal basic income.

Most of the time, however, these conversations don’t include the types of local leaders in business, education, and labor who find themselves on the front lines of responding to these emerging realities. Meanwhile, those leaders grapple with a toolbox of outdated policies and practices ill-suited to the challenges of the modern economy.

As part of a recent public forum hosted in partnership with The Atlantic, The Shared Prosperity Partnership—a national collaboration between the Kresge Foundation, Brookings, Living Cities, and the Urban Institute—convened a panel of workforce experts and employers to discuss ways that local leaders can improve the standing of American workers both now and in the future. That discussion alighted on three practical lessons for these critical stakeholders:

1) Disrupt traditional training models.

Although it still pays to complete a college degree, shorter, more flexible forms of training can also provide opportunity to a broader swath of workers. This will become even more true as employers emphasize specific competencies they are seeking in job candidates, rather than generic levels of educational attainment. “A four-year degree shouldn’t be the marker that separates people that don’t have one to entering those jobs they can perform very well in,” said Plinio Ayala, the president and CEO of the information-technology training organization Per Scholas. He described the importance of getting companies and their human resources departments to be more open to less traditional worker pathways. Per Scholas prepares participants for two IT certifications with 15 weeks of intensive training, alongside coaching, help finding a job, and other resources.

2) Don’t forget soft skills.

Proficiency in discrete competencies aren’t the only factors that weigh in an employee’s success. Lara Shock, senior director of associate experience at Walmart, described how her company emphasizes personal attributes like “attitude” and “will” in recruiting employees before training workers on specific skills. At Per Scholas, learning how to work in teams, manage up, negotiate raises, and other interpersonal skills are also a key component of the organization’s program. These are some of the valuable “human” attributes that robots (as yet) do not possess.

3) Engage employers based on the business case.

As consumers of labor, employers have a real—though often unrealized—interest in collaborating with local workforce leaders to ensure that workers have the skills to compete. In Chicago, two professional services firms, Aon and Accenture, have led the development of a network of local employers across diverse industries offering paid apprenticeships combining work and learning, while helping build a direct pipeline of skilled workers. City Colleges of Chicago Chancellor Juan Salgado, whose system partners with the network, described the “business solution” that this collaboration provides for companies, while also expanding opportunity for a broader cross-section of residents. Salgado was clear that this is not a charity act for companies: “If we cannot deliver business value to you, we’d rather have you not do the apprenticeship program.” Per Scholas’s Ayala reinforced that designing curricula, training, and other elements of programs in close collaboration with companies can also make it easier for graduates to obtain jobs.

Whatever the “future of work” looks like, cities are likely to experience it first. And given the scale of economic change underway, they shouldn’t confront it alone; larger reforms and programs at the state and federal levels over the next several decades must more comprehensively address training needs, job quality, and worker supports. Yet lessons and models are emerging in many cities that point the way toward a future that can better share prosperity among businesses, workers, and communities.

The Kresge Foundation provides financial support to the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program.