Ivanka Trump (and Apparently Her Dad) Takes Workers and Automation Seriously. Good.
In the Wall Street Journal, Ivanka Trump has announced a new White House initiative aimed to help American workers, especially factory workers, make the transition to a much more automated economy. This is mostly good news.
I was worried when I first saw the headline that the president might be announcing some quixotic campaign to stem the tide of automation and artificial intelligence. (The Drudge Report titled the story “Ivanka vs. Robots!”) Was Ms. Trump announcing a new tax on robots (as Bill Gates has suggested)? Tariffs on imported goods made in automated factories? Or maybe a basic income for everyone (as former President Barack Obama suggested this week)?
Happily, no. Instead, the White House effort seems focused on helping workers “train for the jobs of tomorrow.” It’s about helping Americans make the transition to an information economy, not wish it away. (Ahem. That’s the subject of my new book The Human Advantage.)
There are Still Lots of Unfilled Jobs
Ms. Trump avoids the rhetoric of the robot apocalypse by focusing on what’s really happening. Yes, there is massive disruption coming, not just in factories, but in areas such as long-haul trucking. But at the moment, there are scads of skilled but unfilled trade jobs. Why? Because, for decades, education experts have treated such jobs as beneath the dignity of human beings, even as such jobs became more high tech.
As she notes, “Nearly 1 in 5 working Americans has a job that didn’t exist in 1980, many in technology, the fastest-growing segment across all industries. Such rapid change is one reason 6.6 million U.S. jobs are currently unfilled.”
You might think all these jobs require a college degree in computer science. Not true. Many of them require technical training. In many cases, though, Americans can get such training without the obligatory courses in gender studies and Marxist literary theory. The President and his daughter/adviser seem to know that.
The Devil is in the Details
Of course, at the moment, this White House plan is mostly an aspiration. The details will reveal whether it’s likely to help American workers, or hinder them. In her piece, Ms. Trump mentions efforts to expand apprenticeships and technical training. That sounds good, as long as it doesn’t end up as yet another well-meaning but misguided bureaucracy.
She mentions that today, “the president will sign an executive order to prioritize and expand workforce development so that we can create and fill American jobs with American workers.” I hope this is about making American workers more competitive, not “protecting” them for foreign competition.
The order will create a new National Council for the American Worker. Its purpose is to “make the government more efficient, innovative and … focused on results.” That’s a reference to the “40 workforce-training programs” already in place “in more than a dozen[federal] agencies,” many of which “have produced meager results.”
Businesses on Board
The order also calls on businesses and associations to help with the effort. In fact, fifteen such groups “will sign the pledge to educate, train and reskill American students and workers. They commit to expanding apprenticeships, increasing on-the-job training, and providing Americans from high school to near-retirement with opportunities to obtain skills to secure stable jobs and careers in the modern economy.”
Again, this sounds nice, but the devil is in the details. My worry is that the effort will deliver still more crony capitalism, in which some large companies and trade associations (read: lobbyists) make nice with the federal government to get a regulatory leg up on the competitors down the road.
Still, everyone should be able to get behind the stated aim. “Our goal,” she writes,
is to ensure that every American can move from an entry-level job into a lifelong career. Our hope is that millions of men and women who have been on the sidelines will now have the chance to find fulfilling work that lifts up them and their families. Our vision is to create a workforce culture that fosters and prioritizes life-long learning.
Really good stuff. Of course, a goal is one thing. A policy is another.
The best thing the government can do to help Americans shift to a highly-automated economy is to provide a climate where workers can get continuous training without going into debt. It should also make it easy for new start-ups to launch without a lot of fuss and bother. Small firms are where most new jobs come from. They’re also where most new jobs are destroyed. That’s why some small start-ups must grow to become medium and large businesses, which provide stable work for large workforces.
That should be the standard by which we judge this new White House initiative. Let’s hope it measures up.
Jay Richards, PhD, is Executive Editor of The Stream, an Assistant Research Professor in the School of Business at The Catholic University of America, Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute, and author of The Human Advantage: The Future of American Work in the Age of Smart Machines. Follow him on Twitter.