Could Indiana’s greatest economic strengths be its greatest weakness? 

It turns out that the sectors where Indiana is strongest are those most vulnerable to automation.

For example, Indiana relies on manufacturing more than any state in the country. It accounts for some 28 percent of the state’s economic activity and more than 17 percent of Hoosier jobs.

The downside of this heavy reliance is that Indiana has the highest percentage of jobs that could be lost to automation in the near future, according to a recent study by MIT Professor Daron Acemoglu. Of more than 300 metro areas across the country Acemoglu looked at, Kokomo and Elkhart ranked 2 and 3 for potential job losses.

Another leading sector for the state that calls itself the “Crossroads of America” is transportation and logistics, which includes trucking, rail, warehousing and distribution. Driverless vehicles will put many trucking jobs at risk.

Granted, much of what is being written about the future of work is overly alarmist—warning of what I call “the coming robot zombie apocalypse” in which automation and AI eliminate vast numbers of jobs and replace most workers.

It’s far more likely that new technologies will do what they have always done: create millions of new jobs for people prepared to do them. Professor Acemoglu agrees with many other experts when he disputes the hyperbolic claim that machines will wipe out human work entirely.

Still, his study underscores a real and disturbing trend: that robots have a direct influence on income inequality. The manufacturing jobs they replace are typically held by those who lack other good employment options. There’s a direct connection, then, between automation in robot-using industries and sagging incomes among blue-collar workers.

“When robots are added to manufacturing plants,” Acemoglu says, “the burden falls on the low-skill and especially middle-skill workers.”

The Toyota plant in Princeton shows the great benefits, but also the challenges, that robots bring to Indiana. After repeated investments in technology to improve efficiency, including another $700 million project announced this year, the plant will be able to produce an unbelievable 420,000 Highlander SUVs a year.

The great news for Indiana is that employment has grown along with productivity, but to get one of those jobs, new workers must go through a two-year education and training program to get the higher-level learning Toyota requires. There are no shortcuts to these good jobs for people without the requisite skills. 

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb understands this. In his 2018 State of the State address, he said that “developing a 21st century workforce is the defining issue of the decade.”

Since then, to his credit, he has established grants to help more Hoosiers enroll in workforce training and help more employers provide that training.

But we need to do much more. And our first step must be to recognize that the work of the future will be fundamentally different from that of today. In the age of smart machines, our work won’t focus on replicable tasks—physical or mental—that can be handled by algorithms. Rather, we will increasingly perform “human work,” the things that only humans can do.

To succeed in the human work ecosystem, people must learn differently and develop skills representing an array of human traits, things like empathy, ethics, and compassion—and human capabilities, such as creativity, problem solving, analysis, and communications.

Preparing Hoosiers for human work will require new thinking from employers, educators, policymakers, and, of course, workers themselves.

Employers need to embrace the diversity of their employees, their customers, and their communities. They also need to define the knowledge, skills and abilities their workers need, and ensure that workers can develop their talents throughout their careers.

Educators must put the student in the center of all they do and focus on the success of all students. The fast-growing racial and ethnic groups, and students who are older and immigrants—people our current system often overlooks—are the human workers of tomorrow. Educators also must help students develop not just STEM and technical skills but also the human traits needed in a world of human work.

State policymakers need to more forcefully address racial inequity and other challenges that prevent people from achieving their full potential. And while we’ve long provided incentives to businesses to invest in technology, we must do more to invest in workers themselves. Incentives and funding must be made available to employers and workers so Hoosiers can afford to develop—and continually upgrade— the knowledge and skills they need for human work.

Workers themselves will need to own their learning in the same way people now take responsibility for their health. They need to fully understand what it is they know and what they can do so they can describe it to current and potential employers. Also, they must have a strategy for continuing to build their skills.

For more than 200 years, Indiana adapted its economy to meet changing circumstances, evolving from agriculture to manufacturing to today building 21st century sectors such as life sciences, orthopedics, IT, and aerospace.

It’s time to build on that record of adaptation. Today’s challenge is to prepare Hoosiers, not for a world without work, but for work that draws on our unique human abilities.

Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation. His new book, “Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines,” is now available. 

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