Technology, remote work shaping future labor force
Childcare, transit, housing seen as essential for workforce
THE NATURE OF work is changing due to technology, automation, and the explosion of remote work. Addressing the challenges posed by these shifts will require not only traditional workforce supports like job training, but also a change in how society addresses the factors that allow employees to be successful, from childcare to public transit.
That was the key theme of a report released Tuesday by the legislatively created Commission on the Future of Work, chaired by Sen. Eric Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat, and Rep. Josh Cutler, a Pembroke Democrat. Its 17 members represented business, labor, higher education, and related fields.
“For many workers, success will depend on new work supports and infrastructure such as flexible childcare and eldercare, responsive public transportation, adequate housing stock, robust mental health services, access to broadband, and digital literacy,” the report says.
Lesser said that during commission meetings, the issues of childcare and transportation came up “again and again” as persistent challenges for workers. “The future worker will require a set of supports…that allow them to effectively participate in the workforce while providing social, emotional, and family stability,” Lesser said at the commission’s final meeting Tuesday.
The report reads more like a broad policy roadmap than a specific legislative recommendation. Many of its potpourri of policy prescriptions are summaries of complex policy issues, like housing and childcare, that will take complex legislation and partnerships from the industries involved to address.
But commission leaders emphasized the urgency of addressing these issues. “The future of work isn’t coming, it’s actually here,” Lesser said. “The change is rapidly happening as we speak.”
Lesser said some recommendations could be incorporated into upcoming legislative bills on health care, economic development, and transportation bonding.
The commission was formed at a time when the labor market is changing drastically. An earlier Baker administration report estimated that between 900,000 and 1.2 million jobs in Massachusetts will be lost due to automation. Remote work is also reshaping the labor force, and Baker officials have estimated that around 1.4 million Massachusetts residents could continue to work effectively remotely.
The commission report concludes that automation could have positive repercussions. For example, if computers handle lower-level tasks, the International Data Group estimated that could free up an estimated 36 percent of workers to focus on higher value tasks. But data so far suggest that the more robots enter the workforce, the lower wages are and the fewer jobs are available. (IDG also estimated that 16 percent of people will lose their jobs to automation.) Data show Black and Hispanic workers are disproportionately working jobs where they will need additional training to keep up with technology.
“There’s some reason for optimism, it can improve the quality of the workday,” Lesser said of automation. “But there are obviously concerning downsides around job displacement, and a lot of the productivity gains of technology haven’t been shared with workers.”
Remote work is another massive change that has myriad ramifications: growing disparities between service and professional workers, a need for more flexible childcare and eldercare, changing patterns in the use of public transportation, and a shift in the need for commercial versus residential real estate as people spend less time downtown and more in suburbia.
“We are in an era of labor shortfalls, and it’s incumbent upon us as policymakers to look at and create ways we can upskill and reskill workers to make sure we’re meeting labor needs,” Cutler said.
The report also finds that these shifts could exacerbate inequalities. The move toward automation will disproportionately hurt lower income workers in the service and manufacturing industries. There is a disparity between the growing number of gig workers, who lack benefits like paid leave and retirement accounts, and traditional employees. Black and Hispanic individuals remain out of work at higher rates than Whites, and women left the workforce during the pandemic at higher rates than men. Other ongoing challenges are a lack of sufficient housing people can afford and the digital divide, with some residents still lacking Internet access.
One major recommendation the report makes is to address the need for expanded and improved workforce training. “Providing pathways to entry-level jobs, career pivots, returns to the workforce, and upward mobility is critical to promoting a workforce adaptive to uncertainty,” the report says.
Other recommendations touch on a wide array of issues. Some are directly tied to work, like improving job supports for older employees or offering language classes for immigrants. But many focus on the outside supports workers need. For example, expanding access to flexible and part-time childcare to serve parents with hybrid schedules, or developing affordable elder care services to help workers care for parents.As workers adopt new patterns for when they go into the office, the report says that public transit will have to adapt – for example, having commuter rail service throughout the day not just during rush hour, and creating MBTA passes that account for three-day workweeks.
The report says the state must develop new housing programs to “maintain accessible, affordable, and alternative housing options across the state.” And with workers spending more time at home, that creates an opportunity to further develop municipal downtowns.