Mar 01 2017

How Cities Can Survive Workforce Automation

City governments can empower more skilled workforces and investments in IT to thrive in an atmosphere of rapidly evolving workplace robotics.

Robots are coming to a workplace near you, and soon. A new wave of automation is already making its way into offices and factories everywhere, and while it will boost productivity and wages for some jobs, it could erase or transform others entirely, according to the National League of Cities’ latest report on the future of work in cities.

“Current estimates suggest 15 to 25 percent of tasks in manufacturing, packing, construction, maintenance, and agriculture could be cost-effectively automated by 2025,” the report states.

For example, Pepper, a cognitive computing and continuously learning robot powered by IBM’s Watson, will soon begin testing in the hospitality and retail sectors. Meanwhile, Robo-Stow, a six-ton robotic arm that moves crates and other large inventory in Amazon’s warehouses, is already in service.

With advances in automation changing the landscape of work in cities — and necessitating a more skilled workforce and more digital workspaces — cities can prepare by setting forth a roadmap to adapt to the coming robot revolution.

Invest in Infrastructure, the IT Kind

While roads, bridges and public transit are important, building out technology-oriented infrastructure, such as a reliable high-speed broadband connections, will prove even more important to support workforce changes in cities.

“Currently, more than 62 percent of Americans depend on internet access for their day-to-day jobs, and jobs that require broadband are projected to increase 25 percent by 2018,” the NLC report notes.

A reliable and fast internet connection has proved central in attracting new businesses to a city, not to mention that supporting a broadband investment creates new career opportunities in a city as well.

“A $5 billion investment in broadband has been shown to create 250,000 jobs,” the report finds. “Reliable gigabit speed (or higher) fiber networks are critical to supporting traditional large- and small-businesses as well as microenterprises that conduct business from homes or other non-traditional locations.”

Moreover, with the growing importance of digital infrastructure, more cities should consider building out infrastructure to support 5G connectivity. 5G will provide the high-speed, low-latency services necessary to support networks that will enable the millions of sensors necessary for the rollout of the Internet of Things across the country.

Empower an Educated Workforce

In this day and age, there is a direct collaboration between education and employment. The NLC report finds that, “per 2015 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the labor force participation rate for those with less than a high school diploma is 44.4 percent; for those with just a high school diploma, 57.3 percent; for those with some college or associate degree, 67.2 percent; and for those with a bachelor’s degree and higher is 75.1 percent.”

To cater to this change in education in the labor force, Louisville, Ky., has set a goal of adding 55,000 degrees — 40,000 bachelor’s and 15,000 associate degrees — to its workforce by 2020. Working with local companies that have offered to reimburse college tuition, the city has set forth programs to do so, such as Degrees At Work, which aims to help 15,000 working adults earn degrees by 2020.

Public-private partnerships with tech giants are also working to expand the level of education in the workforce. In Seattle, Microsoft provided $40 million in funding toward “a partnership between the University of Washington and Tsinghua University to create the Global Innovation Exchange, a degree-granting partnership with a global focus that brings together students, academics, and professionals over a project-based curriculum,” according to the report.

Have a Strategy to Cater to Remote Work

As workplaces change, it’s important for businesses and governments to work with their IT vendors to develop short- and long-term workplace strategies that will take advantage of new technology to leverage mobility, analytics and collaboration tools, such as video conferencing platforms.

“The move toward ‘creative class work’ and 1099 labor increases the need for shared and temporary space. With less need for or inclination toward permanent office buildings and heightened interest in living in downtown corridors, this might encourage organizations to commit to establishing teleworking policies that enable employees to work from anywhere,” the report notes.

Moreover, with employees now increasingly asking to choose their own workspaces or work remotely, it’s important that governments ensure their employees are operating in a secure environment. This requires investment in upgradable technology and software with automatic upgrades, which will minimize the risk of compromised data. This is particularly important as smart technology in the home presents the potential for cybersecurity breaches.


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