The Need to Reimagine Existing Skills in the Battle Against Job Displacement

Automation promises to usher in unprecedented cost-savings for businesses across America. Replacing workers with automated machines saves on labor costs, which represents one of the most expensive components of a restaurant’s annual budget. The issue – and this should come as no surprise – is what happens to the displaced workers. They don’t have jobs anymore. The typical reply to this is that just as automation leads to job losses, it also creates new ones as well. While no one can claim theres a perfect 1:1 ratio of losttocreated jobs, the logic of this claim is sound. Automation requires a robust workforce to maintain the machines and preserve the gains in efficiency that it purports to achieve. 

So, let’s grant that this claim holds up and ask the next question: How can the market connect displaced workers to the new job opportunities created by automation? The idea that a worker will move directly from a form of skilled labor to maintaining the machine that replaced them is naïve. Rather, its more realistic to hope the worker can access a training program that will equip them to be hired elsewhere. However, that may be too optimistic as well because the needs of industries constantly vary and threaten to devalue the training displaced workers receive. Job security is ever more difficult to find in the increasingly automated landscape. This highlights one of the most pressing concerns in the dialogue on automation: the need for resources devoted to bridging the divide between workers’ existing skills and available jobs. 

Much has been written about these issues. If you are interested in learning about the effectiveness of job training programs, analyses from The Atlantic and The Huffington Post paint a bleak picture of the ineffectiveness of job training programs. While job training programs have received a great deal of attention from think tanks and policy groups, the emerging consensus is that they represent a Band-Aid on the problem – an ineffective solution that isn’t meeting the challenge of our time. 

This is not to say job training programs should be abandoned altogether – for many, they provide valuable skills that have transferred them to new careers. However, one of the most important realities of job displacement is that automation often replaces skilled labor. Workers who developed industry-specific knowledge and skills are forced to abandon those skills and either find unskilled labor (at a pay-cut from their previous salary) or develop new skills through a job training program. 

In the effort to combat job displacement, more focus needs to be placed on repurposing the skills workers gained in their many years at their job. Job training programs are exactly what they sound like – they train workers for new skills, but they often fail to capitalize on the skills workers already have. Think tanks ought to grapple with questions surrounding the repurposing of existing skills just as much as they do the training of new skills. 

Of course, this may seem counterintuitive. The worker was replaced by a machine – what use are their skills anymore? A reply like this, while perfectly logical, lacks imagination. A newly automated job doesn’t mean the skills it replaced are non-transferable to other jobs. It just means that it was more efficiently served by a machine in one, specific role.  

In order to respond to the level of displacement we are gearing up to see in the near-future, leaders in the public and private sector alike need to embrace bold thinking in order to reimagine new uses for existing skills. Identifying industry-specific knowledge and skills that are transferable to other roles in the same industry, or even different industries altogether, ought to just be one way that leaders try to meet this challenge.