Lifelong Training Is the Future of Work

People will have to constantly pick up new skills to cope with a rapidly changing economy.

It's not a job; it's education.

Photographer: Thomas Trutschel/Photothek/Getty Images

In his 2006 science-fiction novel “Rainbows End,” author Vernor Vinge conjured up a future where education was a truly lifelong process. The high schools of the future were packed with a combination of precocious young children and middle-aged laid-off workers looking to retrain. As technology changed faster and in more unpredictable ways, Vinge predicted, society’s notion of education would evolve as well, becoming an institution dedicated not to preparing legions of young people for a single job, but to helping workers constantly adapt.

A recent story in the New York Times shows how we’re inching toward that future. As automation and globalization make jobs obsolete at a more rapid pace, nonprofit job-training organizations such as Opportunity@Work and Skillful are helping laid-off workers retrain. Their main focus is on middle-skill jobs -- tasks like operating machinery or doing basic programming, which require more than just a strong back but less than a college degree. Middle-skill jobs are often routine jobs which make up a shrinking, but still substantial part of the labor market:

Doing the Same Thing Over and Over

Index of routine tasks

Source: "The Changing Task Composition of the US Labor Market," David Autor and Brendan Price, Massachusetts Institute of Technology


It’s these jobs that suffered most in the 2000s, when China’s entry into the global trading system shocked the U.S. manufacturing industry, and it’s these jobs that are most at risk from automation.

Lots of commentators, and some economists, believe these middle-skill jobs are doomed. There’s a common perception that the work of the future will be sharply divided into dull, low-paid service tasks and exciting but difficult high-paying knowledge jobs for college graduates. Some even believe that humans without high-skill tech or management jobs will become mostly unemployable, depending on government support to survive.

But this pessimism is premature. Though middle-skill jobs have shrunk a bit overall, the decrease is modest. Lots of middle-skill occupations are destroyed, but lots more are created. While it’s worth thinking about scenarios where routine work disappears, that’s a concern for the future -- for now, it’s more important to help middle-class workers displaced by trade and technology find new jobs at similar skill levels.

The U.S. is pretty bad at this. The Department of Labor does have a program called Trade Adjustment Assistance, which is supposed to help workers find new jobs when foreign competition eliminates their old ones. It’s just not very effective. Research in the 1980s found that TAA did nothing to boost displaced workers’ incomes. More recent studies have found a small positive effect, but nothing very impressive.

One reason might just be that the program is underfunded and too narrowly targeted. Developed countries in Europe and East Asia tend to spend a lot more on adjustment programs:

Handups, Not Handouts

Public spending on labor-market adjustment programs as a share of GDP

Source: Brookings Institution

Some other research shows that there are ways to do TAA better than the U.S. now does it. Making the program more localized, and providing assessment and counseling for workers, can have a positive effect.

Whether a lack of funding, a fragmented system or bad execution is at fault, the U.S. ought to try harder to help displaced workers. The notion of a fluid labor market, where workers quickly and easily acquire new skills and switch between occupations for their entire careers, is a fiction that exists only in outdated academic models. The reality is that government help is needed for the middle and working class to realize their potential in the face of a fast-changing world.

In the past, this sort of proposal would be mainly championed by Democrats, with free-market Republicans disdaining the idea that workers need government help. Now, however, President Donald Trump appears to have stolen a march on the left. In June, he issued an executive order expanding both the funding and the scope of new federal apprenticeship programs. The amount of funding isn't huge -- it won’t come close to matching the amounts other countries spend. But it’s a good start, and it represents a small bit of follow-through on Trump’s promises to help the beleaguered U.S. working class.

The left needs to respond in kind. Programs to provide direct government assistance to U.S. citizens -- health-care subsidies, child-care benefits, universal basic income -- are good, but they’re not enough. They focus on people’s value as human beings, but do little to stress their value as productive workers. There is a huge amount of drive and potential in the U.S. working and middle class, which government assistance can help to unlock and put to use.

If the left focuses all its effort on handouts and neglects the potential of U.S. workers, it could even send a message that the left doesn’t believe the average American has much to contribute to national prosperity. A belief that redistribution is the only way to save the working class tacitly accepts the idea that high earners produce all the marketable value in the economy. That would make for a sorry contrast to the labor-focused left of the 20th century, which emphasized the economic value created by the workers.

So although government benefits are fine, there should be more emphasis on initiatives to help workers retrain, find new jobs and get back on their feet after being buffeted by the winds of trade and technology. Trump shouldn't be the only one pushing for this sort of program.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Noah Smith at

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    James Greiff at

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.