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The Future of Work and Why It Matters

Automation, gig work and the new economy. Here are the highlights from the Future of Work panel at the Cambridge Associates Impact Investing Conference 2017 in Denver, Colorado.

Automation is already here… and growing

Automation is gearing up to have a massive impact on our economy. According to McKinsey,  49% of paid activities have the potential to be automated. An estimated 80-100% of all truck driving jobs will be replaced by automation.

The automation momentum is just getting started. According to Andrew Stevenson from JUST Capital:

  • 70% of service sector jobs are at risk
  • 30% of oil and gas jobs will be reduced in 2025
  • In financial services: UBS plans to reduce its workforce from 95K to 65k employees
Just Capital estimates that 66 million U.S. jobs are at risk for automation. Even if only one fourth of that estimate becomes a reality, it means stagnant wage growth. Why? Because of competition for fewer positions.

Keep in mind that wages have already been stagnant for the last 13 years, while housing, education and healthcare costs have grown by double digits. Just one of the effects of this trend: the opioid crisis facing the U.S. is correlated to under-employment and stagnant wages.

Meanwhile, the gig economy might not be all that

Companies are increasingly outsourcing non-core operations. Lower level jobs like janitorial services have been outsourced for some time. What’s different today: higher skilled jobs are now also being converted to gig work at an alarming pace. That includes lawyers, accountants, and financial analysts.

This shift away from corporate employment and toward independent contractors has massive implications for our economy. Here’s why:

  • There is no minimum wage
  • Many independent contract jobs (aka gig work) do not pay as well as corporate jobs do
  • There are no corporate benefits (e.g. healthcare, equity, bonuses)
  • There is no social security
  • It is more difficult to get credit (due to an inconsistent paycheck)

The New Economy: some good news after all

While these macro trends sound bleak, the good news is that we are at the same time experiencing the emergence of the new economy. With it, new types of jobs will be created.

Manufacturing: following market demand

As bad as automation can be for some jobs, it can also be good for others.  For example, according to Nancy Pfund from DBL Partners, when GM closed their manufacturing plant in northern California in 2010, five thousand jobs evaporated. This had a massive trickle down impact on the local economy.

At the same time this was happening, Tesla was looking for a location for their first manufacturing plant. Many investors urged them to go to China. Investors warned against opening a plant in over-regulated California. But Tesla had a different vision. They wanted their manufacturing to be close to their headquarters in Silicon Valley. And they wanted to keep the jobs in the U.S. So they worked with sustainable investors and the local government to retro-fit the old GM plant. The result: 10,000 jobs were created.

Think about that impact. 5,000 jobs were lost but 10,000 new jobs were created. This happened because Tesla filled a need in the marketplace and consumers made their voice heard. Those 10,000 jobs could have gone to China. Instead, you now have Silicon Valley employees working hand-in-hand with employees from Freemont, CA and Sparks, NV.

This does not need to be a red state / blue state issue. This is about working together to address a new market need and create new jobs in the U.S.

Impact investors will have an important role to play in the new economy. The smartest impact investors will address social cycles that have unmet needs. The GM plant was going away. There was no demand for that product. The new demand was for Tesla. As investors, we can help these companies succeed.

Farming: disrupting the old guard

The global food system, including agriculture, fertilizer manufacturing, and food storage and packaging, accounts for over 25% of green-house gas emissions. Some of the largest companies, like John Deer, Monstano and ConAgra, were formed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (19th century!). This is a sector that is ripe for disruption.

There are innovative companies that are paving a new future by addressing uneven access to automation.

There is a company called Farmers Business Network, for example, that is bringing transparency and insight to the true value creators: the farmers. Years ago, transponders and sensors were placed on tractors and seed equipment so that seed growers and other suppliers could monitor demand. Not only was this data kept from the farmers, it was used against them. The result: some farmers were paying 30% more for seeds than were the farmers down the road.

Farmers Business Network aggregates and anonymizes data, then gives this data back to farmers so that they can better manage their costs.

This is a great example of using automation to develop a platform company that disrupts the data holders and brings more transparency to the market.  By removing the middlemen, they have democratized the data and made the entire process more efficient.

Coding: the next big blue collar job

There are 530,000 unfilled coding jobs in the U.S. This number is expected to grow to 1.4 million by 2020. That’s right. Not even outsourcing can keep pace. What’s more, offshore outsourcing is now becoming more expensive.

Innovative companies are addressing the need head-on and giving back to the community at the same time. Techtonic Group, a full stack development consultancy in Boulder, Colorado, was once a committed offshore outsourcer. A few years ago, they made the decision to develop local talent instead. They are transforming lives in the process.

Techtonic was given the first ever the government-recognized technology apprenticeship program in Colorado. They provide underprivileged youth, minorities and veterans technical training and mentorship to become entry-level software engineers.  These candidates get paid to learn to code as part of the apprenticeship program. They are then placed on real client projects and land jobs earning $65,000 – $85,000 per year. Conscious capitalism is part of their DNA. They are addressing a need while at the same time doing good things for our community. CEO Heather Terenzio believes it’s time to invest in local resources. Time for code to replace coal.

Why the future of work matters

Here are a few big world questions to think about:

  • If we automate away millions of jobs, who will buy all the stuff that companies produce?
  • If we don’t train our population for the skills of the future, what will happen to these communities?
  • If we allow the heroin epidemic to go unchecked, what impact will it have on us all?

These problems will come to everyone’s front door one way or another. Think about the increased need for public services alone (police, healthcare, food stamps, housing assistance).  Solving these problems before they snowball isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the smart money thing to do.

What you can do to protect your financial future

There are things you and your family can do to prepare for the new economy. In fact, each one of us can help address the big world challenges in a way that will also make us more financially and physically secure. Here are a few strategies:

  • Invest in yourself. The new economy is coming. Don’t be left behind. Invest in learning a new skill like software coding. If you don’t have the money to pay for a coding bootcamp, there are other options. Check out how this unique company is using an old-world apprenticeship model to train works for the new economy. That’s right, you can get paid to learn to code.
  • Invest in your financial future while solving big world problems at the same time. You can now become an active impact investor without shelling out big institutional money. It used to be that you had to have $2,500, $5,000 or even $100,000 to get into impact investing. Not anymore. There are consumer platforms and low-cost investment vehicles that let you make an impact for as little as $50. These are investments, not charity. That’s beneficial for you as an individual and the world.
  • Don’t live beyond your means. Yes, we realize this obvious. But the reality is that many of us forget. And that’s ok. We just need to keep reminding ourselves that there are only two levers: money coming in and money going out. If you increase the former and decrease the latter, you will set yourself up for a brighter financial future. Check out more good money ideas for earning, spending and saving.
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