Starship delivery robots on campus at UT Dallas (Courtesy: UT Dallas).

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The Robots Are Coming for Our Jobs, and Dallas Wants To Be Ready

Mayor Eric Johnson is pushing ‘workforce development’ to prepare Dallas residents for the age of automation.

In his state of the city address this week, Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson teased a pending report on workforce development, which he called “one of the most important and least discussed issues of our time.” And, well, here’s the report.

“Workforce development” resembles the sort of bloodless corporate language that seems designed to repel and obfuscate, like “synergy” or “upskilling.” (We’ll get to upskilling in a second.) I suspect that partly accounts for how little discussion it gets. But what it means is fairly straightforward and, yes, important.

A lot of eggheads who study economics and the labor market worry that increasing automation and other-long term trends in our globalized world are going to cost workers—especially low-wage workers in roles that don’t require an expensive education—their jobs.

The broad idea behind the workforce development that Johnson champions is that we can “upskill” those workers, meaning train them to do the jobs that can’t or won’t be given to robots.

“By investing in new upskilling efforts and working with our partners to help promote, refine, and expand existing programs, we can help our residents better themselves, make more money, and start exciting new careers,” Johnson says in a press release.

That’s good for the people who live and work in Dallas, Johnson says. It’s also good for city economic development officials who bend over backwards to try and lure those big corporate relocations to town. The Amazons of the world like to move to places that already have a large, highly trained workforce.

The share of jobs that pay what is deemed a “family-sustaining wage” in Dallas bend heavily toward White workers, who hold 54 percent of those roles. Black workers have 15 percent and Latino have 16 percent. The report asks about what actions the city can employ to eliminate barriers to access these higher paying jobs.

In doing so, it points to improving education opportunities and the aforementioned upskilling efforts to help further educate the talent pool. It urges the creation of targeted workforce development programs through organizations like Dallas College and Workforce Solutions of Greater Dallas with employer buy-in. It also implores the mayor to use his bully pulpit to advocate for such initiatives and even enter into an interlocal agreement to formalize the matter.

The City Council’s workforce, education, and equity committee will get briefed on this report next month. (The report does a good job of laying out the problem and top-level fixes, but council should have some operational questions about what this looks like and which employers will be involved.) Dallas College, one of the partners Johnson is referring to, has made “jobs of the future”-style workforce training a big part of its identity in recent years. The mayor says he wants to spend federal COVID-19 stimulus funds on implementing some of the recommendations in this new report. This is, at the very least, no longer “one of the least discussed issues of our time.”

And the economic upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps most evident in that tight labor market you keep hearing so much about, has made figuring out the way we work perhaps more important than ever.

Read Upskilling Dallas: How to Modernize the City’s Workforce for the Jobs of Tomorrow.

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