California can design the future of work

Workers on the job at a construction site. (Photo: fuyu liu, via Shutterstock)

People will look back at this moment as historical. Economists, sociologists and political scientists will study and debate the choices that we are making as either wise or foolish.

As Californians, we should write the history we want – by strategically and pragmatically addressing the present economic challenges in a way that enables the next generation of Californians to thrive. Governor Newsom this month announced the creation of the Commission on the Future of Work, and this is a powerful opportunity to align new policies and new politics.

Nearly one in three full-time working Californians is in or near poverty.

Tectonic shifts in global markets, the ruthless evolution of technologies and the erosion of social structures are disrupting our economies, communities, workplaces and families. The emerging structural inequality – lottery-like wealth and poverty that cannot be escaped through hard work – are rolling back decades of progress toward a shared prosperity that was the aspiration of the world.

More than 80 years ago – in response to the Great Depression and as part of the New Deal – the Wagner Act established the right of private sector workers to organize into unions. As World War II drew to a close, the GI bill encouraged and enabled millions of returning veterans to train for peace and prosperity.

That’s how big this moment is.

We cannot predict the future, but we understand the present well enough. Nearly one in three full-time working Californians is in or near poverty. Modern poverty manifests as Uber drivers sleeping in the car after 12-hour day, as do some hard working health workers whose car is their home

Even white collar jobs are becoming fragmented, with workers pasting together gigs to make ends meet and bereft of supports like health benefits and savings. The technology-imposed “sharing economy” is disaggregating employers, workers and consumers often to the detriment of workers.

The broad benefits established during the last 50 years – such as predictable work schedules, standardized compensation, vacation, health and retirement benefits – are declining across the board.

Technologies will impact all tiers. While easily automated jobs are disappearing quickly, machine learning will soon do better many of the skills now reserved for the most educated professionals. Already, the algorithm can detect cancer markers never before seen by humans and read x-ray images with greater accuracy that trained doctors.

Enough people have already been left behind that our politics are poisoned by fear over personal economic security – and the anxiety if not anger that private and public leaders won’t come out of their corners to forge a new consensus on the social structures and skill development that can restore economic security and upward mobility.

As worker-owned structures, co-ops can also serve as “platforms” to aggregate gig and other workers.

This new normal must renew and sustain the innovation that have made this decade so prosperous for so many. But it also must establish new ways to empower individuals and groups of individuals, as has been achieved through labor-management partnerships and worker cooperatives.

One in three workers is estimated to be working unpredictable hours with variable wages often for multiple employers. The British government created a technology platform called CEDAH that enables these “on call” hourly workers to regain control of their work schedules by selecting hours from multiple employers seeking their skills. Pacific Gateway, the workforce board in Long Beach, is partnering with four national philanthropies to pilot the platform here in California. The project won the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ award for best economic development initiative in America of 2018.

Platforms like CEDAH can start to restore the balance between efficiency seeking employers and security seeking workers.

So could cooperatives that provide workers access to continuous education and skill upgrades and tuition assistance to attain industry-valued credentials. As worker-owned structures, co-ops can also serve as “platforms” to aggregate gig and other workers to provide for portable healthcare and retirement benefits and enhanced job-security. Co-ops can outreach deeper and wider into communities to bring more people into pathways where there are living wage jobs, restoring those bottom rungs on the career ladder to social mobility.

Education strategies also must adjust to accommodate the requirements of the future of work. The California Community Colleges have begun reinforcing the “human+” transferable skills that would enable workers to adapt to the automation of jobs functions. The New World of Work 21st Century Skills and the cccMaker Initiative seek to develop transferable skills like critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication.

System-scale disruptions require system-scale adaptation. California has a jump start on figuring out the policies that will generate a dynamic ecosystem of skills, work and social structures that can restore economic security and upward mobility. There is still time to get head of the impact of technology on workers, employers and the economy.

The greater challenge for policymakers may be forging the political consensus on the combined actions that will allow California to maintain its innovative edge while enabling all individuals to achieve the California Dream.

Dave Regan is president of the SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West. Van Ton-Quinlivan is the former executive vice chancellor of workforce and digital futures for California Community Colleges.

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