Report of the Commission on the Geopolitical
Impacts of New Technologies and Data

Chapter 7. Future of work

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While this report has focused on the technological changes that will impact geopolitics over the next decade, the recommendations contained within will be meaningless if the United States and allied nations ignore the most important ingredient in the success or failure of all endeavors: people. Developing a digitally fluent and resilient workforce that can meet the challenges of the GeoTech Decade will require private and public sectors to pursue several approaches. These include a broadened view of technical competencies and how they are acquired, improved alignment of skills and job requirements, incentives for employer-based training, and data collection to help assess the effectiveness of these investments and their effects on workers. Ensuring that people, especially people from underrepresented communities, are not left behind by the advance of technology—and that societies have the skilled workforces they need to innovate and prosper—will determine whether the GeoTech Decade lives up to its ambition.

From artificial intelligence (AI) to quantum computing, and for applications ranging from augmented reality to smart cities and communities,1Smart Cities and Communities Act of 2019, H.R. 2636 — 116th Congress (2019-2020), accessed March 26, 2021, https://www.congress.gov/116/bills/hr2636/BILLS-116hr2636ih.pdf the technologies that will shape the GeoTech Decade require specialized investments in the US workforce.2National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Building America’s Skilled Technical Workforce (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2017) accessed April 16, 2021, http://nap.edu/23472; Mark Warner, “Part II. Investing in Workers,” Medium, February 8, 2021, accessed April 16, 2021, https://senmarkwarner.medium.com/ii-investing-in-workers-e7e9a09ff24c Shifting from the “findings and recommendations” format of the previous chapters, this closing chapter discusses key areas needing greater focus and investment from businesses, governments, educational institutions, and stakeholder organizations, as follows.

Create the workforce for the GeoTech Decade

Recognize the diverse competencies that characterize skilled technical workers

Diverse competencies include academic credentials, technical competencies in an industry, and technical competencies in a specific occupation, plus “soft skills” that make for reliable and collegial employees.3National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Building America’s Skilled Job descriptions should consider the value of all sources of relevant experience and ability.

From artificial intelligence (AI) to quantum computing, and for applications ranging from augmented reality to smart cities and communities, the technologies that will shape the GeoTech Decade require specialized investments in the US workforce.

Communicate the breadth of pathways for gaining skilled technical work 

Given the current focus on a college degree being a prerequisite to desirable, skilled technical jobs, the workforce should be better informed about the variety of skilled technical occupations, the different ways of acquiring credentials, e.g., college certificates, professional certifications, professional licenses, and digital badges and how such credentials allow more points of entry into desired occupations.

Strengthen skilled technical training and education

Secondary school: Career and technical education (CTE) programs4Bri Stauffer, “What Is Career & Technical Education (CTE)?” Applied Educational Systems, February 4, 2020, accessed April 16, 2021, https://www.aeseducation.com/blog/career-technical-education-cte enable the acquisition of STEM education combined with work experience that teaches technical skills relevant to specific professions. CTE programs can be enhanced through active participation and guidance provided by representatives from local businesses. This could help ensure that the skills training is better matched with employer needs and requirements. The P-TECH program, now operating schools in eleven US states, Australia, Morocco, and Taiwan, is another model for building regional workforces with the needed technical skills and for providing underserved youths with opportunities for gaining relevant technical skills.5“What is P-TECH all about?” website homepage accessed April 16, 2021, https://www.ptech.org/

Post-secondary school: There are 936 public community colleges in the United States,6“Number of community colleges in the United States in 2021, by type,” Statista, accessed April 16, 2021, https://www.statista.com/statistics/421266/community-colleges-in-the-us/ representing a nationwide resource for improving the technical skills of the current and future workforce. According to a Community College Resource Center analysis, “6.7 million students were enrolled at community colleges in fall 2017, and nearly 10 million students enrolled at a community college at some point during the 2017-18 academic year. Yet, the overall percent of community college enrollees in 2014 that completed a college degree at a four-year institution within six years is 17 percent.”7“Community College FAQs,” Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University, accessed April 16, 2021, https://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/Community-College-FAQs.html Increasing this completion rate through financial incentives and investments could increase the number and qualifications of the technically skilled workforce in the United States.

Non-college credentials: The value to the worker and the employer of non-college degree certification programs—apprenticeships, certifications, certificate programs—could be improved by better linking them to established, defined technical workforce competencies. Improved standards and data on the effectiveness of these credentials will help workers and employers determine the value of these credentials and enable more informed choices for skills training.

Alternative sources of skilled workers: A recent study8Peter Q. Blair et al., “Searching for STARs: Work Experience as a Job Market Signal for Workers without Bachelor’s Degrees,” National Bureau of Economic Research, March 2020, accessed April 16, 2021, https://www.nber.org/papers/w26844 examined the prevailing practice of a four-year college degree being a prerequisite for skilled jobs. The analysis identified large populations of workers with suitable skills but who did not have a college degree. Of these, the analysis showed that twenty-nine million have skills that would enable them to transition to an occupation with a significantly higher wage. These results suggest that job descriptions should be carefully specified so as to reach the largest qualified talent pool.

Better align employer-based training with needs

Business incentives: Incentives for employers to invest in improving workforce technical skills should help a company remain competitive. The investments would align the employer’s needs for technically skilled workers and the training and education that is offered. One approach could be based on tax incentives for increasing investment in workforce skill development to increase productivity.”9Warner, “Part II. Investing in Workers.”

Technology development and training: Workforce organizations can play a role in effectively communicating, between employers and the workforce, issues concerning needed technical skills and the mechanisms and policies being used to manage these requirements. To accelerate identifying and acquiring future technical skills needed by the workforce, technology development programs could also create a training program for the skills associated with using the new technology in a product. This can shorten the link between technology development and the training of workers.

Acquire and analyze human capital development and management data

Human capital development and management data should address projections of the supply and demand for workers according to categories of technical skills, results of the search and hiring process, and how well the employer’s needs were satisfied. The data also should inform how well the training policies provided equitable access to skills training across the workforce.

These data should enable analyses of the expected value of different options for skills education and training for workers, the return on the investment of workforce training for businesses, and options for adjusting workforce training policies.

Foster lifelong learning

The pace at which advanced technology is changing the workplace and the skills needed to maintain a competitive economy makes lifelong learning imperative. Individuals should be able to guide their training and education throughout their working years.

To accomplish this on a national scale will require effort to craft incentives that motivate individuals to embrace this approach. Important elements may involve information on the value of continuing educational programs and the job opportunities that are enabled, funding mechanisms to lower the cost to the individual, and strategies developed with businesses that specify how continuing learning enhances an individual’s work prospects.

To guide individual choices, new tools can facilitate gathering and synthesizing the complex array of information on skills, occupations, training opportunities, and assessments of their value. The tools can also help the individual identify and secure funding from available sources, and help government funding sources be applied efficiently to this long-term challenge.

Equitable access to opportunity

The United States needs to ensure equitable access to opportunity during the GeoTech Decade. From access to affordable broadband to digital literacy, governments and the private sector need to make significant investments and work together to reduce barriers to full participation in the economy.

Access to affordable, high-speed Internet and devices to use it

Ensuring that all people can participate in the GeoTech Decade requires a commitment to equitable access to affordable, high-speed Internet. Millions do not have high-speed broadband, particularly in rural areas.10Federal Communications Commission, 2020 Broadband Deployment Report, April 24, 2020, accessed April 16, 2021, https://docs.fcc.gov/public/attachments/FCC-20-50A1.pdf What is more, many with access to high-speed broadband are still unable to afford the high cost of Internet and the devices needed to access it.11Tom Wheeler, 5 steps to get the internet to all Americans COVID-19 and the importance of universal broadband, Brookings Institution, May 27, 2020, accessed April 16, 2021, https://www.brookings.edu/research/5-steps-to-get-the-internet-to-all-americans/ Lack of access and affordability perpetuates systemic inequities. 

While Congress has made significant investments in broadband since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, more remains to be done. The Emergency Broadband Benefit Program has helped low-income households afford broadband during the pandemic.

Acquiring digital literacy

Digital literacy, the ability to find, evaluate, utilize, and create information using digital technology, is becoming an essential skill for every individual. Digital literacy is an important element in eliminating a digital divide among nations and within a society. It complements affordable, high-speed Internet access by enabling people to develop and communicate local content, to communicate their issues and concerns, and to help others understand the context in which these issues occur.

Logo of the Commission on the Geopolitical Impacts of New Technologies and Data. Includes an 8-point compass rose in the middle with the words "Be Bold. Be Brave. Be Benevolent" at the bottom.

Be Bold.
Be Brave.
Be Benevolent.

We all can lead. Positive “change agents” — individuals willing to work across sectors and nations to help illuminate better ways through the shared turbulence we are experiencing — are needed now more than ever.

Seize the day. Create the future together.