North America is unprepared for the jobs of tomorrow


As the news focuses on stalled trade negotiations in North America, Canada, Mexico and the United States have shocking skills gaps that are already hampering economic performance and competitiveness.

North America’s labor markets face massive technological disruptions, which should point all three countries toward preparing the jobs that will serve the continent well in the future.

In the U.S., for example, up to 1.4 million workers may lose their jobs by 2026 because of new technologies. Sadly, none of the three economies are ready for the challenges of further automation.

Manpower’s most recent skills survey found employers struggling to fill vacancies: 46 percent in the U.S., 40 percent in Mexico and 34 percent in Canada. Inadequate experience and lack of hard and soft skills are the most-cited reasons for not finding the right candidates.

Even low-skilled, entry-level positions are now requiring digital skills, and the United States is experiencing a severe worker shortage.

The three governments should create a trilateral task force on workforce development, with public-private, federal-sub-federal working groups, to develop proposals and strategies to meet emerging skills and jobs needs.

Leaders recognize the need to invest better in training workers, but they are still searching for effective approaches.

In January, at the Davos World Economic Forum, President Trump signaled the need to invest when he said, “… to be successful, it is not enough to invest in our economy. We must invest in our people.” In June 2017, he launched an initiative to support apprenticeships via public-private partnerships.

The Canadian government appropriated significant new funds in its 2018 budget for workforce development, prioritizing multi-stakeholder collaboration.

The government of Mexico is working with private companies to implement the Modelo Mexicano de Formación Dual (Mexican Dual System of Vocational Education), which combines academic training with work-based learning.

At the state, provincial and local levels, there are many successful, innovative workforce development initiatives in all three countries.

North America, however, lacks an overarching means to share best practices, to scale up programs that work, to adopt common definitions and to share data that can help businesses, workers, schools and students choose good paths to the future economy. A trilateral task force on workforce development would help fill that gap.

A new North America Workforce Agenda should focus on four clusters of issues:

1. Apprenticeships and other work-based learning. Many jobs do not require a four-year college degree. Work-based learning for those coming into the workforce and for workers adapting to new skill needs is vital, but much work remains to define and implement good models.

Shared agreement on what an apprenticeship program entails and on quality standards would be very useful. The working groups can suggest mechanisms to identify and promote best practices and public-private partnerships.

The groups can devise strategies to increase public awareness of the benefits of work-based learning, to eliminate stigmas of vocational education and to encourage more businesses, students and workers to participate.

2. Certifications. Professional credentials can reduce hiring costs and encourage higher wages. When employers do not recognize credentials, workers, job seekers and businesses suffer. The working groups can promote agreed criteria for recognizing credentials and for making them more portable to help alleviate skills shortages and facilitate worker placements.

They can promote common terminology about credentials and a shared understanding of competencies needed. They can develop guidelines to assess informal learning and professional experience in order to help job seekers and businesses.

3. Data collection and transparency. At all educational levels, students struggle to make career decisions and educators struggle to provide advice due to poor information on labor market trends. Businesses are looking for good data to better recruit.

Collecting the right data on skills and workforce trends and making it available in real time is vital. The working groups can promote norms for collection and sharing labor market data transparently.

They can support building platforms and data tools openly available to all, allowing space for public and private sector initiatives (such as LinkedIn is pursuing).

4. Best practices for ¨the Fourth Industrial Revolution.¨ All three North American countries are rapidly incorporating technology into daily routines. The pace of transformation will only increase.

Public authorities, businesses and educators need to develop agile approaches that provide students, workers and managers with skills to use new technology effectively.

The North American working groups could propose ways to incentivize companies to invest in re-skilling and “up-skilling” workers, to provide mid-career learning and to develop short-term training programs.

They could recommend strategies to encourage collaboration between companies, educational institutions, unions and others to better align curricula with labor market needs and evolving technologies.

The pace and scope of change means that workforce development will require continued adaptation across North America. For success, this effort must bring together governments, educational institutions, the private sector, unions, NGOs, intermediaries and others.

North America’s workers and businesses will benefit greatly if we can build a forward-looking workforce dialogue to promote the competitiveness of all three economies.

Earl Anthony Wayne is a public policy fellow at the Wilson Center and a former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico and assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs, among other positions.

Raquel Chuayffet, a research assistant at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute, contributed to this piece.

North America is unprepared for the jobs of tomorrow