What the Rest of the World Can Teach Us About the Future of Work

What the Rest of the World Can Teach Us About the Future of Work
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In 2013, Oxford University’s Martin Programme on Technology and Employment examined more than 700 occupations’ probability of being replaced by automation — and found that 47% of jobs in America were at high risk. This is one of the most cited studies on automation (often referred to as the Oxford Study) and authors Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne’s findings have sparked ongoing debate among employers, policymakers, and pundits.


Change is a constant. Yet, its effects can be difficult to predict. Last August, my former colleagues at the U.S. Department of Labor reported that the number of unfilled jobs in the U.S. reached a historical high of 7.14 million, exceeding the 6.23 million Americans who were unemployed at that point. At the same time, median incomes and real wages have only increased slowly, and that growth is decelerating. Income inequality continues to accelerate while stock markets soar and GDP growth slows.


One thing we know for certain is that, when it comes to adjusting to the changing nature of work and the workplace, we are operating in an economic environment where the demand for skills is both heightened and ever-shifting. Our public policies need to keep up with this skills challenge or there is a risk millions of workers will be left even further behind. But American public policy is lagging. We can and should do better.


One source of valuable policy ideas is the experience of other developed countries wrestling with many of the same questions confronting U.S. workers, employers, and education and training providers. The U.S. is not the only country searching for answers to questions about the future of work, workplaces, and skills.


Consider Singapore, which launched the SkillsFuture program in 2016 to make career-focused education and skills training more accessible for individuals at every stage of their career. The program provides financial incentives, targeted training courses, and career assessment services to foster lifelong learning and skill mastery across the entirety of every Singaporean’s career. Or the French Personal Training Account (Compte personnel de formation), which all private and public-sector employees and job seekers use to track work hours, which turn into credits for vocational and professional training schemes. Better known are the vocational education and apprenticeship programs that have made countries like Switzerland and Germany darlings of the workforce development discourse.


Of course, we cannot blindly adopt a foreign country’s program as our own. The United States is different. Our educational and workforce development systems are different. Our economy is massive and we have cultural expectations that developed over decades. We have the greatest higher education institutions in the world, but many Americans cannot or need not seek a four-year degree. 


Nonetheless, we can and should learn about what has worked in other countries and, perhaps more importantly, study what has not. We should assess where other countries’ systems, programs, and solutions have succeeded and whether those successful components are adaptable for American workers, employers, education and training providers, and governments at the local, state, and federal level.


Even if we should not transplant whole programs, there are lessons to be learned from the experiences of other countries in navigating employment and workforce issues.  These countries’ experiences can offer a shortcut to success if we can find a way to adapt their experiences to the United States’ needs and circumstances.


Navigating the future of work poses challenges for workers, policymakers, business leaders, and educators across industrialized nations beyond the U.S. It is incumbent upon U.S. researchers and policymakers to cultivate a more nuanced, comprehensive understanding of the public-private policies and partnerships other industrialized countries have pursued in accelerating workforce development. There’s a lot we can learn from the ways that other countries are responding to these tectonic trends. As we contemplate the future of American work, that’s one important approach we should include in any policy agenda.


Seth Harris served as Deputy Secretary and Acting Secretary for the U.S. Department of Labor between 2009 and 2014. This op-ed is based on the forthcoming white paper “Putting the Future of Work in a Global Context.”

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