Whether it is Elon Musk creating a “cyborg dragon,” Oxford researchers estimating that robots will eliminate 47 percent of American jobs,, or a recent “Silicon Valley” episode premised on fears that PiperNet will engender a bot revolution — the economic, policy, and pop culture conversation around artificial intelligence tends to veer towards the alarmist or even apocalyptic.
While these stories make good headlines, they miss the opportunities that are being created by technology and further inflame a feeling of hopelessness among Americans who feel left behind by a changing global economy. A new BLS report – the first in over a decade looking at the “gig economy” – highlights the opportunities for growth we are seeing as the workforce evolves.
Put simply, the jobs that are being created today aren’t the same as those of a generation ago. The new backbone of the American economy is local services. These jobs are “future-proof” since they won’t be automated (their “nonroutine” tasks can’t easily be mastered by machines) or off-shored (they have to be done in-person).
These jobs are also not being created by the same types of employers that dominated the labor market in the 20th century — namely, large corporations — but rather by new firms, small businesses, and even those working for themselves
As the lead economist at Thumbtack, a company that deals with this changing workforce up close, I see opportunity to use AI to help people find work where others fixate on robot overlords. At Thumbtack, we’ve built a platform that has changed how people can market and profit from their talents. We use technology to connect entrepreneurs with customers who need their service and, ultimately, grow their businesses.
But as the nature of work evolves, new challenges will emerge for workers and technology companies can’t solve these alone. For economic growth and technological innovation to truly be a “rising tide that lifts all boats”, policymakers need to do the following:
1. Make benefits portable. In a survey of over 14,000 small business owners, one in four said access to healthcare affected their decision to start a small business. Policymakers should strengthen and improve self-employed individuals access to health insurance and other benefits like retirement savings and workers’ compensation so no one is locked into a job simply for benefits.
2. Streamline the regulatory environment. By making the rules and regulations easier to comply with and understand, our country’s political leaders can help aspiring entrepreneurs start and grow their businesses.
3. Invest in workforce training. Businesses can help employees develop the right mix of skills, but the government plays the most significant role in educating and training (or retraining) today’s workforce. And unfortunately, 49 percent of our pros report that there aren’t helpful government-sponsored training and networking programs in their communities and only 26 percent say they’ve actually used one.
So while some focus on the AI dystopics, here in the real economy, AI is providing hundreds of thousands of Americans with resources to connect their skills with consumers who need them. That is a future that could benefit American workers of all stripes, but policymakers must be willing to pursue the necessary policies.
Lucas Puente is the lead economist for Thumbtack.
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