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Jul 15

Preparing for the Future Economy

Posted on July 15, 2019 at 11:19 AM by Melinda Mayo

Recently the McKinsey Global Institute issued a report entitled “The Future of Work in America,” which focuses on how automation and the anticipated associated job losses might affect local communities, and how communities may best prepare to remain as resilient as practical.  The report has some interesting insights and lessons applicable to Roanoke, and I thought it worth noting a few in this week’s post.

Work Is Changing and Will Continue to Change

The report notes that the nature of work has always evolved and changed, but that the pace of that change has accelerated over the past two decades and shows no signs of easing or ceasing.  The report notes that millions of jobs will be phased out and replaced by automation and intelligent machines.  While new jobs will also be created, the report notes that day-to-day work will change for essentially everyone.  The report continues, noting this change will not affect everyone or everyplace in the same way or to the same degree.

Not All Change Will Be the Same for Everyone

Perhaps most alarming is that the report projects the largest occupational categories in the United States have the greatest potential for displacement by automation.  Nearly 40 percent of the jobs in our Country are currently in occupations that could shrink between now and 2030.  At first blush this may seem overstated, but upon reflection this appears to make sense when one considers that the largest occupational categories in the United States are Office Support, Food Service, and Production—occupations dominated by positions generally not requiring specialized skills or extensive education and thus readily automated.  Unfortunately, many of these jobs are currently held by women and minorities.  Loss of these jobs will likely worsen the concentration of poverty and unemployment found in our communities.

Not all the news is bad.  After all, the report acknowledges thousands of jobs will be created during this same period.  Many of the new jobs will be in healthcare, STEM occupations, creative fields, and business services.  Additionally, there will be jobs created that do not exist today.

Not All Change Will Be the Same for Everyplace

Just as with workers, some cities are better prepared than others to adapt to this new work environment.  The report indicates that the most successful cities will be the 25 “megacities”–think New York, Boston, Phoenix, and Austin.  It is anticipated that these cities will absorb about 60 percent of the new jobs created over the next decade.  Other cities anticipated to have success include niche cities that may be college-oriented, such as Blacksburg, retirement-oriented cities as those found throughout Florida, and small powerhouse cities such as Fort Collins, Colo.  The last set of cities anticipated to have opportunities at success include those that are large and stable, such as Salt Lake City, Utah or those that have an independent, mixed economy such as Roanoke or Wilmington, N.C.  The report makes it clear that, though these types of cities are likely to fare better than others, all will experience profound change in the workplace and the workforce, and thus demand intentional planning and responses.

Unfortunately nearly one-quarter of the population lives and works in cities not anticipated to fare well through these changes.  Cities such as Danville, Fayetteville, N.C. and Huntington, W.Va. have struggled since the Great Recession and are likely to continue to do so over the next decade.

Resiliency Will Require Intentional Responses

The report concludes with recommendations intended to help workers prepare for these changes and make themselves more resilient.  Most of the recommendations boil down to adaptation and education.  Workers must constantly update their skills.  Education need not always mean a college degree, but most certainly requires high school graduation and some form of post high school training—a process that will remain a necessity as long as a person desires to remain active in the workforce.

Likewise, the report includes recommendations for companies and communities.  For businesses, the ability to offer ongoing training and development will be essential to recruiting and retaining the necessary talent.  For communities, it means tailoring economic development efforts to their particular context—for megacities this will mean an increase in affordable housing and expansion of transportation options, and for cities like Roanoke this will mean an increase in supporting entrepreneurship and skills development.

Perhaps clearest of all in the report is that no one (not workers, not companies, and not communities) is guaranteed a successful future. Intention, strategy, and thoughtfulness are all required to enable adaptation in this new economy.  Roanoke has several advantages:  an independent economy, a growing healthcare and STEM sector, proximity to major institutions of higher learning, and an affordable, high quality of life.  But Roanoke also has large portions of its workforce engaged in occupations most at risk for displacement, and concentrated pockets of residents with low educational attainment and limited skill sets.  

For these reasons, it is all the more important that we continue working collaboratively as a region at furthering the skill sets of our residents, emphasizing early childhood learning, and bridging the gap that exists between many of our residents and the high growth sectors present in our community.  We are in a good place, we have a good foundation, but we need to remain vigilant and intentional so that automation and a changing economy strengthen our city and all of our residents, rather than weaken us or lessen economic opportunities.

-- Bob Cowell


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