Doing Better: Age of automation will force NC’s workforce to adapt

The world of work is changing dramatically. With the rise of automation, demographic shifts and decreasing demand for labor, North Carolina’s workforce will have to adapt to survive.

To bring this challenge into focus, N.C. State’s Institute for Emerging Issues recently hosted its annual Emerging Issues Forum focused on “FutureWork.”

According to data released at the forum, as many as 1.2 million jobs across our state will be made redundant by automation and technical advances in the coming decades.

Today, close to 100,000 manual labor jobs in our state are highly vulnerable to automation. Another 30,000 accounting jobs are at risk, as are counties, especially in the south and east, that are highly dependent on agriculture and manufacturing. Currently, 95 percent of North Carolina’s high-tech jobs are in only 22 of our state’s 100 counties.

In a 2013 study by Oxford University, researchers predicted that machines might be able to perform half of all U.S. jobs in the next two decades. The most common jobs in our country – retail sales, cashiers, food and beverage servers and office clerks – are the most susceptible to automation and comprise more than 10 percent of our workforce.

Low wages

The share of U.S. economic output that’s paid out in wages now stands at its lowest level since the government started keeping track in the mid-20th century. Some of this can be attributed to globalization and a reduction of bargaining power for the labor class. But economists from the University of Chicago have estimated that nearly half of the decline is the result of businesses’ replacing workers with computers. Consider this: In 1964, the nation’s most valuable company, AT&T, was worth $267 billion and employed 758,611 people. Today, Google is worth $370 billion and employs 55,000 people.

These trends are only going to accelerate and affect every segment of our population. The share of Americans in their prime working years (25-54) who are actually working has been trending down since 2000. The number of recent college grads who are under-employed (in jobs not requiring a degree) is higher than it was in 2000, and real wages have fallen 7.7 percent in that same time.

“In the biggest picture,” Derek Thompson wrote in “A World Without Work,” “the job market appears to be requiring more and more preparation for a lower and lower starting wage.”

This puts even more pressure on people without degrees or relevant training. In North Carolina, less than 20 percent of our residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher. And the kind of jobs they are being prepared for may not be around in 10 years.

So what do we do about it?

As part of the Emerging Issues Forum, a group of workforce experts across higher education, industry and government developed a set of strategic responses to these challenges.

The recommendations primarily focus on increasing the connection points, communication and collaboration between our education institutions and employers. Currently, imperfect information networks, fragmented talent development pipelines (and a subsequent mismatch between available labor and required skills), and transportation gaps between the worker and the workplace all limit employment growth in our state and nation.

Staying nimble

To address these challenges, the experts recommend enhancing career pathways for students starting before kindergarten and supporting a student’s personal and professional development through to full employment based on his or hers interests and skills. This includes establishing more differentiated programs for workforce readiness in which employers identify needed skills and higher education partners stay nimble enough to create customized workforce training to directly fill these needs (vs. general programs for larger groups).

Employers and educators also need to partner to provide more project-based learning opportunities (like apprenticeships) that teach real-world skills. And we need to cultivate the entrepreneurial mindset in our emerging generations – equipping them with the confidence and competence to navigate the ever-changing workplace and develop new opportunities for themselves as innovators, entrepreneurs and creators.

Also fundamental: increasing education system equity that supports the development of a fully representative (race, gender, age) workforce with the skills necessary to compete in our global economy. To get there, we will need to invest in access to quality education and address our persistent achievement gap.

As the workplace changes, communities will also have to adapt and develop creative strategies for harnessing the local workforce, including fostering entrepreneurship, developing community “maker-spaces” and determining unique economic drivers that will lead to brain gain versus brain drain.

The future of work is upon us. Are we ready?

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, blogs at They can be reached at and followed on Twitter at @cgergen.