On-Demand Education Needed for Middle-Skills Workers

SLATE | When Julie VanCleave was laid off from Maytag a decade ago, as the appliance manufacturer pulled all of its operations out of Newton, Iowa, she was anxious about what was next. For nearly two decades, she had worked as a secretary. She lacked a college degree. She was 50 years old. And now she was expected to go back to school with students half her age to get retraining for a new career.

“I was the only one in my class with white hair,” she recalls about the courses she took at Des Moines Area Community College for a management degree.

Going back to school was a decision she made reluctantly after a job search failed to produce any results. “The classroom was so different from work, and I didn’t really know how to study,” said VanCleave, who eventually received her associate degree and a new job.

The situation VanCleave faced after getting laid off from Maytag is one that many low-skilled workers without a college degree are facing these days. The world of work is undergoing significant change, and many workers feel unease about the future—one where, they are told, they’ll need continual education to remain gainfully employed.

There is good reason for that anxiety: the rise of automation and artificial intelligence. One frequently quoted but controversial 2013 study from Oxford University predicted that nearly half of American jobs are at risk of being taken over by computers by 2033. While experts predict that few occupations will be totally automated, most jobs are likely to have many of their basic activities performed by a computer in the future. Another study by McKinseyconcluded that 30 percent of the activities people are paid to perform today can be done by a technology that is already available. Low-skilled jobs will fade first. Many jobs, particularly in manufacturing, have already evaporated. Nearly 9 in 10 manufacturing jobs lost since 2000, for instance, disappeared because of automation, not trade (which is often blamed), according to an analysis by Ball State University.

There is widespread agreement among labor economists that workers need access to continuous education to stay one step ahead of rising automation. Half of workers already prefer to learn at the point when they need to, according to a LinkedIn survey of 4,000 human resources and learning and development executives. In recent years, a bevy of new educational providers have entered the market to provide such upskilling for workers, from LinkedIn Learning to boot camps like General Assembly, as well as edX and Coursera, the two big suppliers of massive open online courses, or MOOCs.