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Will robots take your job before you even graduate?

Liz Hilton Segel

With each passing year, parents are getting more worried about how their children will fare once it’s time to take that step from school to the workforce.

They have good reason to fret. Some 17 million Americans under age 30—about one third of the under-30 population—are saddled with student debt. Many are worried about their career prospects despite having invested—heavily, in some cases—in education.

The cost of college is being hotly debated. But it’s only one aspect of an even bigger issue: The automation of many entry-level roles will make it even harder for young people to gain traction in the working world.

The road from education to employment is full of more disconnects than ever. Research from the McKinsey Global Institute finds that workers from ages 18 to 34 hold almost 40%—or 14.7 million—of the US jobs that could disappear due to automation in the next decade. This creates a challenge for young people, both for those trying to make a living in the service sector and for college graduates aiming to get onto the professional track.

 Workers aged 18 to 34 hold almost 40%—or 14.7 million—of the US jobs that could disappear due to automation in the next decade. Two-thirds of the job losses for young people could occur in food, hospitality, or retail. These industries provide a crucial opportunity for more than 30 million Americans overall to bring home a paycheck—and workers under 34 years old make up half or more of the nation’s wait staff, hotel receptionists, and fast food workers. These types of roles build valuable soft skills like communication, punctuality, and customer service, and they also provide that all-important first line on a resume that can propel people onward and upward. The gig economy has created some alternative options such as driving and delivery, but those types of on-demand services are scarce outside of urban areas.

One-third of the automation-related job losses for young people could occur in white-collar jobs, including entry-level roles in accounting, finance, human resources, and administration. In the legal profession, for example, AI can handle document review and case law search—not a favorite task for junior attorneys, perhaps, but one that provides valuable immersion and learning. Actuaries have traditionally spent their early years crunching numbers to assess risk. Now AI is outperforming humans at these tasks.

This means aspiring young professionals will need to enter the labor force in higher-level roles. But employers have been saying for years that too many new hires, even those with college degrees, are not work-ready.

The jobs of the future will demand even more in the way of digital skills, people skills, creativity, communication, and critical thinking.

Companies can help to address this issue by offering more paid internships and apprenticeships to prepare students to hit the ground running after graduation. The apprenticeship model, traditionally associated with skilled trades, is now being adopted by companies such as IBM, Bank of America, and investment and insurance firm The Hartford.

As technology changes, we need to change apace. The US education system has not evolved as quickly as the new world of work. It is not equipping students enough of the technical skills nor the soft skills they will need in the workforce. And there are few road maps available for the majority of young people who are not headed to college.

Back to high school

A systematic solution could be to expand student access to a wider range of post-secondary education and training programs, or blended schools that combine high school diplomas with associates degrees.

When technology took a leap forward in the early 1900s, shifting the economy from agriculture to manufacturing, the United States responded by making high school universal and compulsory.

The “high school movement” eventually made Americans the best-educated workforce in the world and set the stage for the GI Bill to boost college attendance after World War II. The wave of technological progress we’re facing today calls for a similar raising of the bar for how the young generation attains education.

In nearly every field, workers will increasingly need access to some type of postsecondary training. In addition to expanding access to four-year universities, we need a wider variety of options, including community college, apprenticeships, online courses, vocational schools, and credential programs.

Some initiatives promise progress in this direction. In 2014, Tennessee became the first state to cover the cost of community college or technical training for residents—and since then, more than a dozen states and some cities, like Chicago, have followed suit. Some of these programs, such as IBM’s P-Tech schools, the Dallas County Promise, and the Detroit Promise Path, provide business mentors to help young people through the job application process and academic life.

This can be critical support for participants who are the first in their families to go beyond high school. Early evidence suggests these programs have increased the share of young people attending and completing community college.

Employers have the best view on emerging jobs and the new sets of skills required. Some are working closely with community colleges, online educators, and universities to design relevant curricula to create a more robust talent pipeline. Advanced manufacturing companies in particular have made an effort to get out in front with community college partnerships to develop the specialized skills they need to fill the thousands of open positions in the US manufacturing market.

Northrop Grumman has worked with the University of Maryland to create a certificate in cybersecurity, a growing field with too few graduates. Others are participating in efforts to standardize credentials. Google has worked with Coursera, an online education provider, to create a five-course certificate to prepare workers for IT support positions. That certificate is now recognized by dozens of major employers across the US.

These are all positive steps. But now these efforts need to be scaled up. The United States needs to focus on upgrading its workforce skills—and we definitely can’t afford to let the disappearance of entry-level jobs leave millions of young people adrift.

 

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