Job Training for the Automation Age

By Annelies M. Goger, Ph.D.

The global economy is on the cusp of profound economic shifts stemming from the diffusion of new technologies – such as robots, self-driving vehicles, and machine learning – and the impacts they are likely to have on the US economy and the world as a whole. The oft-cited Ball State University report from 2013 found that 88% of job displacements in manufacturing in the last decade were attributable to automation (productivity gains) and not global trade.

On the one hand, the pace of technological change and diffusion – often framed in terms of “disruption” – is speeding up and breaking into multiple realms of everyday life, creating new possibilities and horizons: from smart clothing to 3-D printing of customized products. Although this diffusion process is complex and uneven, employers in several states already report that they have middle-skill and even entry-level jobs requiring moderate levels of technical training that they are unable to fill. As manufacturers continue to innovate expand the use of new technologies in their production processes and as a large wave of experienced workers approach retirement, they anticipate higher demand for technical skills in areas such as robotics, CNC machining, programming (programmable logic controllers), and fluid power electrical controls. This is the creation side of the innovation coin.

On the other side of that coin, the rapid pace of economic transformation threatens to leave many behind through the full-scale destruction of whole classes of jobs, resulting in the continued erosion of livelihoods and increased economic inequality. In the last two decades, the proliferation of low-wage service sector jobs and the decline in overall real wages over time have both been well documented. This has left many low- and middle-class workers – and in some cases, entire communities – in an increasingly vulnerable position where they have limited or no resources to engage in the personal retooling required to shift into new lines of work, such as the new jobs that are being created in advanced manufacturing. A significant job loss often triggers additional challenges to successful adjustment such as financial and emotional stress, substance abuse, or health problems.

Forthcoming research from SPR will show that many students who are in advanced manufacturing career pathways training programs find that training valuable and express excitement and confidence in their new skills. However, they also report substantial barriers to completing their programs. Most common among these are the high cost of training, lack of transportation, and the difficulty of balancing training with work and family responsibilities. Manufacturing students also find the transition from training to employment particularly challenging and have difficulty assessing whether a job opportunity is a good move because many positions are temporary and offer low starting wages.

A New Vision for Job Training Programs?

Seventeen years of declining funding and the lingering effects of the Great Recession of 2007-2009 have left long-standing education and job training institutions in the U.S. in a weakened position to respond to these profound shifts and re-training challenges. Indeed, recent fieldwork completed by SPR and our partners indicated that many programs operating out of American Job Centers (AJCs), the national network of publically-funded centers that assist individuals in finding employment and training, have faced a shrinking and uncertain funding environment. This has had the effect of reducing access to employment and training services, especially staff-assisted services and training. Recent budget proposals suggest the likelihood of an additional 40 percent reduction from current funding levels for the publically-funded employment and training system, pending Congressional approval.

In response to the economic shifts and funding declines described above, employers, educators, economists, and others – across the political spectrum – have begun to rethink and re-invest in our nation’s job training systems and methodologies. Training providers and job centers across the country have been piloting novel and revamped models of training, such as career pathways, sector-based strategies, online learning, and new apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs. Career pathways approaches, for example (such as those studied by SPR), combine technical training with extra supports and counseling to help address barriers to training completion and promote smoother transitions to employment.

More About Our Work

SPR is one of the leading national research and evaluation firms with deep knowledge of the publically-funded employment and training system in the US. We currently have several projects related to understanding how the new approaches to re-training described above are working out in the advanced manufacturing sector and have collected rich qualitative and quantitative data from students, employers, and training providers in the field in states such as Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Tennessee. We are committed to using what we have learned to help improve job training programs and share promising practices.

Listen to our recent interview on the California Report, featuring Kate Dunham, Director of Workforce Development and Human Services Division, and Annelies Goger, Senior Associate.



Check out descriptions of some of SPR’s many projects and reports related to workforce development:

Headshot of Kate Dunham

Kate Dunham, M.P.P.

Principal and Director of the Workforce Development & Human Services Division

Kate Dunham is a Principal and Director of SPR’s Workforce Development and Human Services Division. She specializes in qualitative research, program evaluation, and technical assistance and training for workforce development, offender re-entry, and health projects. She has managed a variety of projects and tasks, including an evaluation of technology-based learning, technical assistance to the U.S. Department of Labor on National Emergency Grant reporting, and an evaluation of efforts to combat sex trafficking. Prior to joining SPR, Ms. Dunham served as School-Linked Services Coordinator for Alameda County, worked as a consultant in Hanoi, Vietnam for Oxfam Hong Kong and Action Aid, and was China and Taiwan Programs Director for Volunteers in Asia. She earned her Master in Public Policy from the University of California, Berkeley, where she focused on collaboration and social and educational policy. Ms. Dunham received her B.A. in Politics and Economics from the University of California at Santa Cruz. Ms. Dunham is an avid traveler and has traveled around the world from Beijing to Los Angeles by train. Contact Kate

Headshot of Annelies Goger

Annelies Goger, Ph.D., M.C.P.

Senior Associate

Annelies M. Goger, Ph.D., M.C.P. is in the Workforce and Human Services Division. She specializes in U.S. workforce policy, global supply chains, and development policy. She is passionate about developing innovative policy solutions to address rising inequality and the future of work. Dr. Goger has domestic and international expertise in qualitative, mixed methods research, and spatial data analysis. Her most recent projects have focused on incumbent worker training in California (the Employment Training Panel), career pathways training programs in advanced manufacturing, and understanding how elders perceive access to food assistance programs. Previously, Dr. Goger worked at IMPAQ International and the Center for Globalization, Governance, and Competitiveness at Duke University. She holds a Ph.D. in Geography from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a Master’s degree in City and Regional Planning from the University of California at Berkeley, and a B.A. in Sociology from Brandeis University. Her dissertation focused on ethical supply chain management in the global clothing industry. Dr. Goger was a Fulbright scholar in Sri Lanka, and her research has been published in peer-reviewed journals and edited volumes. Her edited volume Institutions as Conscious Food Consumers (co-edited with Sapna E. Thottathil) will be released in September 2018. Contact Annelies