Andrew Yang’s laser-like focus on the threat of automation during the first two Democratic debates has sparked much-needed discussion about what the federal government should be doing to help workers displaced in the transition to a more automated economy. But we don’t need to wait for a new president to invest in bold new plans to prepare the workforce for automation. Cities and states can take the lead now, and there’s no better place to start than New York City.
More than 456,000 jobs in the five boroughs are highly vulnerable to automation, and the pace of change will be particularly swift and destabilizing for many of the city’s lower- and middle-income workers, including tens of thousands of bookkeepers, stock clerks, fast-food workers and cashiers.
New York City can get ahead of these powerful economic forces by launching the nation’s first Automation Preparation Plan.
This would be an unprecedented new commitment to helping those most impacted by the coming wave of automation: people already in the workforce. By investing in a series of initiatives to up-skill workers and vastly expanding options for New Yorkers to take advantage of lifelong learning, the city would help workers keep their jobs as occupational requirements change or access new opportunities in fields that are poised to grow.
Step one should be building out the city’s up-skilling infrastructure.
This starts with expanding city-funded training options for incumbent workers. Although New York benefits from an array of good workforce training programs focused on preparing New Yorkers for jobs, we have far too few resources and options aimed at helping current workers navigate a job transition and bolster their skills across the arc of a career.
It should also include targeted investments to scale up New York City’s most effective tech training programs. New York is home to several training programs that have proven highly effective at moving New Yorkers with limited experience into tech-sector jobs — occupations that are poised to grow even as the economy becomes more automated.
The problem is that these programs now generally serve from a few dozen to a few hundred people per year.
The city might also follow California’s lead and create an all-online community college, in partnership with CUNY. California recently established Calbright to reach the millions of working adults across the state who don’t have a college credential but aren’t able to enroll in a traditional community college. Rather than offering multiyear degree programs, the online platform helps adults buttress their skills by earning short-term credentials and badges aligned with specific industry needs.
The second big step should be creating Lifelong Learning Accounts for New York City. Affording to earn a new credential or learn a new skill when you need it most — like right after losing employment — is a major barrier to up-skilling. Establishing city-sponsored lifetime training accounts would make those transitions easier by encouraging workers to save for future training.
Modeled on several successful pilot programs that have operated across the country since 2001, these portable accounts could be employer-matched, like retirement plans; allow workers to save pre-tax dollars; and travel with workers — including workers in the gig economy — from job to job. For low-income workers who lose a job due to automation, these accounts could also be seeded with public dollars in the form of a flexible skills-building grant.
Today, CUNY’s continuing education programs teach job-specific tools ranging from business management to plumbing, but in-depth courses can pose a significant cost burden if not paid for by an employer. Lifelong learning dollars could also be used to earn specific industry-recognized credentials in fields like video production, solar installation, or IT support, or retrain for a tech career at a bootcamp like General Assembly or Flatiron School, which deliver a strong return on investment but come at a high upfront cost.
Preparing for a more automated economy will require bold and innovative policies. We can’t wait.