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metro_20171204_less glamorous jobs digitalization
The Avenue

The most radical digital upskilling is now occurring in middle- and lower-level jobs

Mark Muro

Look closely at the numbers in our new analysis of the “digitalization” of the labor market and you see that the greatest change is occurring not at the top of the skills distribution, but at the bottom and middle.

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Sure, the creation of many new jobs for highly skilled software developers and computer systems analysts is very apparent.

But even more striking are the dramatic changes now convulsing mid- and lower-skill occupations. Since 2002, the digital scores of middle-tier jobs like those of nurses and automotive service technicians have soared from the high-30s to the mid-50s on our 100-point digitalization scale even as lower-skilled workers like home health aides and welders have seen the digital skills demanded by their jobs surge from a digital score of 3 to 23 in each case.

These are dramatic changes and here’s how they look in a cool animation by my colleague Alec Friedhoff. Of particular note in this visualization is the preponderance of occupations that appear to the right of the “no digital change” equilibrium line. Click here or the image to explore the interactive:

metro_20171204_digital skills levels and change for 545 occupations

And here’s how the trend looks when digital score change is plotted for each tier (low, medium, and high) of digital skill:

metro_20171204_Mean digital score by tier FINAL transp-01

These trends are striking and welcome. This explosion of upskilling in the lower half of the skills distribution reflects the critical dynamic of “catch-up” and potentially improved economic inclusivity. Here we see that the tech revolution that is transforming the world of work doesn’t just entail the exploits of PhD. artificial intelligence experts and data scientists, but also now encompasses nitty-gritty tech adoption in unglamorous but widespread offices, stores, doctor’s offices, and garages. As such, the digitalization of the sprawling bulk of the labor market conveys an encouraging picture of the nation’s economy, with the top to bottom adoption of productivity-enhancing technologies and processes, contributing to the prospect of heightened productivity and prosperity nationwide.

And yet, with that said, the rapid upskilling visible in Alec’s bubble map above also prompts concern. In this connection, the data and analysis in our report direct attention not just to high-flying Silicon Valley corporations with hyper-modern office furniture, but also downward and outward toward the massive change going on in regular America.

There across the middle and the lower end of the labor market, rapid digitalization is bringing not just new machines, practices, and opportunity, but also disruption and strain. With the digital content of mid-level jobs rising 30 percent (from a score of 43 to 55) and that of lower-tier jobs more than doubling (from 14 to 36), digital tools and processes are rapidly altering the tasks that workers are paid to do.  This is changing the day-to-day nature of work in hundreds of occupations. In many cases, the arrival of automation is adding a new level of uncertainty about the future. More broadly, companies’ spreading adoption of digital processes (including automation) with associated new roles for workers has likely contributed to the cloud of anxiety that has suffused views of the future as expressed by polls. Those wondering about the agitated state of the nation’s workers and electorate might want to consider the strains of the digitalization process as they spread through the economy.

Beyond just acknowledging the ongoing disruptions, moreover, business leaders, educators, and policymakers need to take seriously that the nation now faces a massive digital inclusion challenge every bit as significant as the need for an expanded high-end IT talent pipeline.

Those wondering about the agitated state of the nation’s workers and electorate might want to consider the strains of the digitalization process as they spread through the economy.

To date, the nation’s most high-profile, extensive, and creative digital skills training efforts (whether through coding courses, boot camps, or other accelerated learning models) are geared almost entirely to the already digitally savvy and highly educated. In contrast, many more millions of workers at the lower end of the skills continuum are grappling with even faster digital change—change that challenges their ability to land even low-tier, decent-paying jobs.

All of which suggests that the next phase of the digital skills push needs to add a new, less-glamorous focus on IT basics like Microsoft Office and basic customer relationship management (CRM) software to the cooler agenda of scaling up the code schools. Though the training needs at the top of the digital continuum are critical, the changes underway farther down the spectrum are acute and call for much more attention if the nation wants to shape an inclusive advanced economy that works for all.

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