Future Works In The News

Workforce development leaders form alliance to ‘future proof’ Philadelphia job market

Futurist Anne Gemmell estimates that advances in automation that would have taken seven to 10 years are now happening in two to three, in part because of the impact of Covid-19.

Workforce development leaders across Philadelphia’s public and private sectors are teaming up on an effort to help find a strategy for “future proofing” the city’s jobs in the age of automation. Future Works Alliance PHL aims to continue the conversation on how the region must prepare for the potential loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs as the Covid-19 pandemic eliminates positions as well.

“We need a strategy that connects the displaced retail worker to jobs we may not know the name of yet or job sectors that are experiencing shortages now,” Future Works Alliance founder Anne Gemmell said.

Formed in June, the nonprofit comprises advisory group members from various sectors, such as workforce development, nonprofits, education and technology. The group includes Ashley Putnam, director of the Economic Growth and Mobility Project for the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia; DeWayne Gordon, first deputy chief administrative officer for the City of Philadelphia; and Sheila Ireland, deputy secretary of workforce development for Pennsylvania’s Department of Labor and Industry. 

A report from McKinsey & Co. estimates that upward of 300,000 jobs in the food service, accommodation and retail trade industries are at risk in the Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington metro area because of Covid-19.

“I would like all the brain power of the region to focus on developing a strategy that will help workers and help our economy adjust to the shift in better ways than we adjusted during the manufacturing shift and the globalization shift that happened during the 70s and 80s,” Gemmell said.

Gemmell, a futurist and former director of special initiatives for Philadelphia’s Office of Workforce Development, said the group’s composition is by design. She asserts that she doesn’t have all the answers for what the future of work should look like in Philadelphia. Gemmell wants the Alliance to have input across sectors and from both the people who lead organizations and those working in the jobs that are impacted. “I’m a big believer in cross-pollination of expertise,” Gemmell said.

Solutions can’t be implemented without the input of those affected by the system during the design phase, she said. Racial and gender equity plays a large part in the work the Alliance will do, and goals include shrinking the racial wealth gap and promoting gender equity in the workplace. 

The Alliance will help institutions to work together to change, rather than every organization working alone to try to make big changes in workforce development, Gemmell said. For example, universities can work together to approach employers about what skills they’re looking for in a future workforce.

One of Alliance’s goals for 2021 is to build its membership base so it has the expertise and influence it needs to implement change, Gemmell said. Because it’s Philadelphia, the Future Works Alliance is seeking to have 76 founding members. Those members will be part of working groups that can tackle different aspects of “future-proofing” the workforce, Gemmell said, and next year’s big priority is talent. Founding memberships span $1,000 to $5,000.

“We have to strengthen the system that helps people transition from jobs that may not be there into careers that are more protected from technology disruptions,” she said. 

The other three pillars the Alliance will focus on are innovation, education and environment.

There is urgency in communicating the realities of the future of work, especially as automation that was slated to happen over the next seven to 10 years is happening in just two to three years, Gemmell said. The increase in need for contactless solutions in the wake of Covid-19 is ramping up technology’s impact on business operations, she said.

Gemmell said that jobs will be created, but the question of how many “quality jobs,” or jobs with higher wages, adequate hours and benefits, remains. Wages haven’t kept pace in the economy as automation has improved productivity, she said.

Leaders need to come to the table to help those creating workforce development strategies, she said. That work can happen by telling educators what they’re looking for in skills-based hiring, Gemmell added, and it can help high schools and colleges align what they teach with the fields that are growing. 

This article originally appeared in the Philadelphia Business Journal on November 23, 2020. Written by Kennedy Rose.