Future Works In The News

Can Philly ‘future proof’ its economy as COVID-19 speeds up automation?

Workers whose jobs can be done by machines suffered more layoffs per capita than those with jobs that aren’t as easily automated. People of color have been especially harmed.

Local leaders in business, tech, and workforce development have joined forces to “future proof” the Philadelphia region’s economy as automation and artificial intelligence threaten to wipe out thousands of jobs.

The Future Works Alliance PHL plans to develop and recommend strategies to prepare the region for rapid changes brought by technology and accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic. The nonprofit, founded in June, unveiled its 14-member board and website last week, and seeks 76 founding individuals or groups to contribute ideas and money by the end of the year.

The emerging collaboration comes as the coronavirus speeds up the trend of robots replacing humans in the workplace. Workers whose jobs can be done by machines suffered more layoffs per capita than those with jobs that aren’t as easily automated, the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia said in September. People of color were especially harmed, possibly because of their concentration in service jobs at risk of automation. Although most job losses during the health crisis are expected to be temporary, some workers such as cashiers and hotel staffers are at risk of permanently losing jobs if companies become satisfied with labor-saving technology, the Philly Fed said.

Future Works Alliance PHL, citing McKinsey & Co. data from April, said conservative estimates suggest that 167,000 jobs in the region are vulnerable.

“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to write the chapter of the region. Where is the region going to be in 2030?” said Anne Gemmell, the alliance’s founder. She said the region didn’t transition well through globalization and manufacturing shifts in prior decades. “We need to really learn from that lack of deft management and make real changes to get us through this next shift of major change in the global economy.”

Gemmell is the former director of special initiatives in the Philadelphia Office of Workforce Development, where she was planning to launch a regional council about the future of work, she said. The city cut funding to the office during this year due to the budgetary strain brought on by the pandemic, she said. Gemmell added that the alliance aims to fill the void created by the office’s absence.

The 14 board members include regional leaders in the public and private sectors, including Sheila Ireland, Pennsylvania’s deputy secretary of workforce development; Robert Campanile, managing director at the global professional services firm Accenture; and Chad Womack, senior director of STEM programs and initiatives at the United Negro College Fund.

Future Works Alliance PHL has formed four working groups focused on innovation, talent, education, and environment. The group said it is evaluating case studies on other countries and gathering information from citizens and industry leaders as it crafts a plan for workforce resiliency here.

The alliance has gained founding members including the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, Community College of Philadelphia, and Unite Here Local 274.

Originally posted in the Philadelphia Inquirer on November 23, 2020. Written by Christian Hetrick.