In his 2006 science-fiction novel “Rainbows End,” author Vernor Vinge conjured up a future where education was a truly lifelong process. The high schools of the future were packed with a combination of precocious young children and middle-aged laid-off workers looking to retrain. As technology changed faster and in more unpredictable ways, Vinge predicted, society’s notion of education would evolve as well, becoming an institution dedicated not to preparing legions of young people for a single job, but to helping workers constantly adapt.
A recent story in the New York Times shows how we’re inching toward that future. As automation and globalization make jobs obsolete at a more rapid pace, nonprofit job-training organizations such as Opportunity@Work and Skillful are helping laid-off workers retrain. Their main focus is on middle-skill jobs — tasks like operating machinery or doing basic programming, which require more than just a strong back but less than a college degree. Middle-skill jobs are often routine jobs which make up a shrinking, but still substantial part of the labor market:
It’s these jobs that suffered most in the 2000s, when China’s entry into the global trading system shocked the U.S. manufacturing industry, and it’s these jobs that are most at risk from automation.