How the Emma Coalition Engages Discussion on Workforce Displacement
August 12, 2019      

The truth about the coming impact of robotics, artificial intelligence, and automation on the workforce of the future lies somewhere between the ‘doom and gloom’ folks who claim it will take all of our jobs, and those who say that we’ll be just fine, citing the Industrial Revolution as examples of jobs that went away to be replaced by other jobs. Looking to bring those groups together, the Emma Coalition was founded by members of Littler (the world’s largest employment and labor law practice), and the National Restaurant Association. The non-profit, non-partisan organization looks to prepare American businesses and government for the Technology-Induced Displacement of Employees, or TIDE.

The name ‘Emma’ represents the granddaughter of Michael Lotito, one of the the initative’s co-founders, but it’s also a metaphor for why the project was undertaken. “Failure to chart an implementable path forward could dramatically impact the lives and work of America’s Emmas,” the group states on its website. “Thus we need to take steps to manage the growing dominance of new technologies in the workplace.”

Robotics Business Review spoke with James Paretti, a shareholder at Littler and a member of the firm’s Workplace Policy Institute, about the goals of the coalition, the stakeholders that are needed for success, and long-term steps around educational initiatives.

Emma Coalition goals

Q: What are the goals of the Emma Coalition?

Paretti: It’s an attempt to bring together folks from all sides of the aisle, across the spectrum on the labor side, on the employer side, really to focus on the challenges that are going to be coming out quickly by way of automation and artificial intelligence.

We’ve coined the phrase TIDE, and we stress displacement because it’s not necessarily the destruction of employment. It’s the displacement. You’re going to lose jobs. I’m holding up my left hand and saying, ‘You’re going to lose jobs to automation over here, but you’re also going to create jobs.’ Then my right hand goes op on the other side, that may be servicing the stuff that’s getting or automated or who knows, we don’t even know what those jobs are going to look like yet.

What Emma seeks to do is be a clearinghouse and advocate to really get this discussion started in earnest, because frankly, as a country, we’re lagging far, far behind in Europe, but particularly with China in terms of the investment their government has made into artificial intelligence and automation, and how that’s going to impact that industry and their workforce.

Q: Can you give an example of how you’re partnering up with other associations and groups to move this conversation forward?

Paretti: We’re partnered with the National Restaurant Association (NRA) because they’re at the forefont of this – the restaurant and food service industry is the second largest industry segment in the country, second only to health care. It was something like one in three Americans gets their first job in a restaurant or food service industry, and at the same time, those are a lot of the jobs that are quickly becoming automated.

So what we strive to do with NRA is to use them as a model and template for saying, “OK, how do we identify the skills that are most susceptible to automation?” Once the jobs that are going to be automated have been automated, how do we identify the skills necessary for those workers to upskills, retrain, and do those things so they can be ready for the jobs that are going to be created.

We recognize that this is going to be a different analysis for every industry segment, and frankly, from employer to employer. But if we could get together a template of how this is done, we can then push that out and get others to tailor it to their own specific needs.

Q: There have been two conflicting approaches on the whole ‘robots and jobs’ thing. On the one hand, you see reports or media articles that state, ‘Yes, robots, automation and AI will replace jobs.’ On the other hand, you see from robot companies and groups that say, ‘No, they’ll replace tasks, but they won’t necessarily replace jobs.’ Most of the places where robots are being deployed are in industries that address a specific labor shortage of human workers. Are both arguments/approaches valid?

Paretti: Let me start by saying yes. Right now, the research is so widely varied. You hear every number under the sun, from in the next 15 years, 50% of all jobs are going to be automated, to much more conservative estimates. You have folks who are wringing their hands and saying, “Oh my God, you know, it’s the robot apocalypse, we’re all doomed!’ You have the other side of folks saying, ‘Well, the Industrial Revolution turned out OK, so I’m sure we’ll be resilient.’

Emma certainly takes the position that if we go that latter route and say, ‘Hey, things will work themselves out,’ we’re in for a world of hurt. That’s why we chose the acronym TIDE. The idea is that if you prepare yourself for the tide, you can ride it. If you just stand there and let it wash over you, yhou’re going to be crushed and washed away.

I think there are a lot of unknowns in the area, which is why we’re highlighting efforts and grateful for the efforts of government agencies to start quantifying some of this. What the Bureau of Labor Statistics does, for example, what are the skills that are being automated, what jobs are being lost. I totally hear the industry – there are places where robots are going to allow human workers to do things more effectively, more efficiently. Particularly on some of the higher-end tasks.

You see that already in the delivery of health care. There are things that surgeons can do with robotics in a cleaner, more efficient, safer, and more effective way than they ever could before. Robots are not replacing surgeons at the same time.

[On the other hand], look at the labor disputes you saw in Las Vegas in 2017, or in 2018 in the hotel industry in San Francisco, where jobs are being displaced. There are some jobs that are vanishing, and what averted a strike in Las Vegas were some significant concessions from employers – from the casinos – to say, ‘OK, your’e going to get this much notice before we propose to automate jobs. If we do automate jobs, you’re going to get retraining for new jobs. If we can’t retrain you, you get to bid on an open job. And finally, if you can’t bid on an open job, you’ll get a significant amount of severance.’

That worked then and in that instance, but it’s not a sustainable model in the long run. I think the truth falls somewhere between the two extremes, of the ‘This is all overblown and we’re all going to be fine,’ and ‘Oh God, it’s over and employment as we know it is not there.’ In some instances, it’s going to be jobs that are lost and people reskilled, and in other instance sit’s going to be jobs that are changed and different.

Replace vs. reskill

Q: Can you give some examples of skills/jobs that would be replaced or reskilled?

Paretti: If you have automated check-in at a hotel, if you go up to a kiosk system – the folks who were standing at the front desk and checking you in – those skills and those tasks are probably not necessary. Now, there is a skill set that is necessary [for humans], things that a machine can’t do effectively, such as a concierge service, or recommend a restaurant, or just sort of give you the lay of the land and answer questions that are not readily apparent.

Similarly, in agriculture you have machines that are being built that can pick strawberries from the field without damaging them. It’s a work in progress, but they are doing this at a much faster rate than human workers can. While that was a function less of labor costs and more of labor supply, but somebody is going to have to service those machines. So you can train somebody who has, up until now, been working in the field, to say, ‘OK, this is how you service the machine that’s now going to do the dirty part and grunt work – the heaviest parts of it.’

Companies say they are preparing for the advent of robotics and automation, but not many are investing in retraining or reskilling programs.

Q: How are companies doing in recognizing the need for preparing and retraining their employees?

Paretti: In our executive employer survey that we did earlier this year, more than half the clients we surveyed are taking steps to prepare for  the advent of AI or automation. But a much smaller number is investing in retraining and retooling. They are saying that they are taking steps to address it, but too often those steps don’t include looking inward to your workforce and saying, ‘What do we do to ensure that these workers’ skills can continue to evolve?’ Frankly, Emma stands even in the bigger picture for the idea that this is not an 18-month solution. That, by January of 2022, we’ll have solved this problem.

Q: What are some of the long-term steps that the nation will have to address?

Paretti: Fundamentally and structurally we need to look at a lot of things, including how we deliver education in this country, and what our vocational education looks like. For the longest time, there’s been the idea that ‘Everybody should aspire to a four-year college degree.’ I think increasingly, people are realizing that’s not always the case, and that’s not going to always be necessary.

But how do we do that? How do we revisit some of the existing job training programs that we have? The federal government spends a lot of money right now on things like Job Corps and WIOA [Workforce Innovation & Opportunity Act] – do those programs need to be updated and modernized?

Too often, particularly in the labor and employment sphere, you have laws we are working with that are literally almost 100 years old, with infrequent updates. What can be done there to ensure that those programs and laws are delivering what they need to be delivering in an 21st-century workforce? Gone are the days of ‘I got my degree or certificate and I went to a company and I got my job and I worked for 30 or 40 years, and then I moved or retired and my kids did better than I did.’ Everything about that paradigm has changed, and is changing probably more rapidly than any of us care to think about.

Possible backlash?

Q: Right now we have a really good economy, with a low unemployment rate. When that changes, do you think we could face a backlash against robotics and automation as more people become unemployed?

Paretti: I do. I think the issue will certainly be even more focused. Right now we’re enjoying a relatively good period of employment. At the same time, employers are still in many instances facing a skills gap – we have jobs that we can’t fill because there are folks that don’t have the skills and training necessary to do them.

But with almost everything labor and employment related, when the economy starts to go south and people start losing jobs or getting their hours cut, you will see an uptick in concern about this. The economy swings back and forth like a pendulum – I think these issues which are important even in a great economy are going to become even more important under more scrutiny in a less-than-great economy.

Automated workforce CloudFactory articleQ: Who do you think will be responsible for getting a lot of the reskilling and workforce training going?

Paretti: At the risk of sounding like I’m giving you a non-answer, that is a question we have to face. I think there’s going to be shared responsibility all around, whether it’s public, private partnerships, governments, federal or state. We spend a lot of money in the federal government right now on job training and worker opportunity, so what role does the federal government play?

States, quite frankly, are stepping in because so much job training is delivered on a state and local level. It’s so particularized, because skills needed in the next five years in Washington state are different than the skills needed in Florida. So the states have a role to play here, and they are taking that up.

What is the responsibility and role of employers? Right now, we have a bit of a bias in the system that may lead some employers to say they are reluctant to spend too much money on training employees because then they can pick up and go, particularly in a good economy. Do we need to examine what drives that mentality and try to revisit that?

Do we need to explore things like lifelong learning accounts and training accounts? If so, who pays for them? I’ve seen models that suggest that the government plants money in there. I’ve seen others that suggest employers make a contribution. Maybe it’s in the way of 401(k)s, where we get favorable tax treatment. When the issue became, ‘I want to sock away money for my kids for college’, we amended the code to say, OK, now you can do that, you can get tax preferred treatment on money that you put away towards education. I think generally folks have thought that those programs have been successful, and we need to look at things like that with respect to retraining, job training, and lifelong learning.

The question comes down to who bears the cost, and how directly. You’ve asked the big question – I don’t know that sitting here today, but we’re on the road to that answer. We hope.

Q: Are you optimistic around the future of these issues, or do you see all of the potential roadblocks and land mines?

Paretti: I am optimistic, and that’s the goal of the Emma Coalition – to be optimistic in the idea to come together around all of these issues.

I think there are a lot of daunting challenges, but I think this is why we have chosen to do this, roll up our sleeves and wrap ourselves around it fully, to engage.

As my Littler partner, Michael Lotito, would say, we are not willing to look at the 7-year-olds and 10-year-olds and say, ‘Hey, sorry kids, you know the 20th century was the American Century. You were born 10 years too late and you missed out.’ We are really committed to making sure that the 21st century is the next American century.

I know that the tasks ahead of us are great, but we feel good about what we’ve started doing and what we’ve done so far. I think it’s just going to go up from here.