Broadband skills vital for new workplace

October 23, 2016 by Eva Artschwager

During this campaign year, politicians have helped to focus public attention on the economic plight that many working Americans have experienced in recent years. Recovery from the great recession of 2008-09 and the improvements in economic indicators overall have done little to reassure a large sector of the workforce, who continue to see job security decline and wages fail to keep up with the increasing cost of living. The words of political candidates and reporters often cast these concerns in simplified language that casts employment and wage issues within a narrow framework defined by declines in manufacturing and construction and current trade policy. As a result, many seek solutions through the resuscitation of manufacturing, the creation of a robust infrastructure improvements program, or a re-structuring of American foreign trade policies.

Robots in car manufacturing plant. Image courtesy of Getty/BBC

While the appeal of a return to better times that these solutions conjure may hold special sway during an election season, this mix of hope and nostalgia obscures the more nuanced and sophisticated conversations that economists and business leaders are having about the transformation of the modern global workplace.  Work, they argue, is relying increasingly on the use of numerically controlled machines (robots) in production and on technical skills and knowledge exchange globally. As these trends have increased, they have altered existing patterns of economic growth and the nature of work itself, resulting in job losses in some sectors and rapid growth in others. The generator of these shifts is neither trade policy nor job creation programs, but rather the expansion of technology and its use. According to this analysis, Americans who have lost jobs or seen their earnings decline are not feeling the fallout of bad government policy or poor economic growth, but are experiencing the dislocations and upheaval brought by larger shifts that new technologies of the workplace have created. This view also suggests that there is little to be gained from attempting to move the dial of the economic clock back to a time of prosperity founded on an earlier model of manufacturing production. In the new digital economies, the central driver of growth is technology and its applications. We would, it seems, be better advised to focus on developing the skills needed to participate in this transformed world of work.

To prepare our workforce for a digital economy and technology-based workplace, training in a wide range of skills will be required. Information literacy, interpretation and management of data, and the capacity to apply digital tools with creativity, innovation, and flexibility will all become standard requirements for employment. Communication and collaboration will be as vital as the high-level programming techniques associated with constructing robotic devices. The successful acquisition of these talents will depend on a foundation of reliable broadband service coupled with a network of training and outreach programs. The need for these services will be greatest in rural and depressed areas in which economic disruption has already destabilized families and communities.  In New Mexico, such communities are numerous. Leveraging the resources to deploy these services and training programs would help our population move into the technically demanding jobs characteristic of emerging digital economies.  It would also develop a strong foundation from which New Mexicans could construct ongoing and sustainable economic development within the state.

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