Rep. Dollens: As automation threatens jobs, initiatives seek to prepare workers for future

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COMMENTARY

In 2014, I worked as a roughneck on a drilling rig that had been built in the 1970s. This rig, four decades old, required countless man hours to ensure that it ran smoothly. Everything — from throwing chains, working the tongs and making connections — had to be done by hand. It was grueling work, but I valued the friendships I built out there with those working beside me.

About a year later, I was moved to a new rig, this one state-of-the art. What used to take four people working out in the sun could now be done by a single driller in a control room. Jobs across Oklahoma’s oil field were disappearing to sweeping automation. Many of those I had worked with before were now struggling to find employment doing what they had done for most of their adult lives.

Technological unemployment looms over OKC, Tulsa

This phenomenon is known, in the words of economist John Maynard Keynes, as technological unemployment. Put simply, automation is going to phase out many jobs that are currently done by humans. It is going to affect not only the barista making your coffee but also jobs from accounting to marketing and beyond. Our workforce here in Oklahoma is going to have to shift and evolve, or else there will be a crippling unemployment crisis.

Early projections show both Tulsa and Oklahoma City as being significant risk areas for jobs replaced by automation. Automation could replace over 55 percent of the jobs in Oklahoma City, and that number climbs to 60 percent for Tulsa. That’s over half a million jobs that automation could replace in the state’s major metropolitan areas. That doesn’t even begin to account for the significant hit on agriculture and transportation that is likely to impact our state’s rural communities.

Initiative seeks to ready state’s workers for future advances

Because of increased automation threatening jobs, I have developed Apprenticeship Oklahoma, an initiative that seeks to give citizens in our state the option and ability to develop and improve their skills for the jobs of the future. As trucks move to self-driven, artificial-intelligence technology, as more rigs are run by programming, and as grocery stores no longer need a teller at each aisle, it is time to train Oklahomans to take advantage of the new opportunities that these advances will open up.

This is not the first time we have seen automation replace jobs. With each leap forward, our society has had to adapt the workforce to meet the demands and possibilities of the available technology. When automation hit the weaving industry in the 1800s, weavers found themselves learning to operate and care for the machines that had replaced them, and thus each individual was able to produce 50 times what they had before. The industry exploded, and, by the turn of the century, the number of weavers in the country had quadrupled.

Innovation reallocates jobs rather than merely displacing them. The trick is making sure you have workers ready to meet the new demands made by technological progress. Even in the next few years, our state will face a significant shortage of skilled workers in necessary fields. Gov. Mary Fallin’s Oklahoma Works program estimates that there is a 23-point gap between the workforce we have and the one we will need by 2020.

I’ve been working hard to develop Apprenticeship Oklahoma into a program that will allow our children more options toward career paths that lead to good-paying jobs. The plan, which I will be proposing at the State Capitol in the upcoming session, is an earn-while-you-learn initiative that seeks to partner with businesses, community colleges, career techs and union training halls to help train our students through hands-on, career-based learning. The goal here is to have students graduating high school with a diploma, a professional certificate, college credit and no educational debt. I’ve put together the video above to help explain the goals of the program.

Federal legislation also in the works

I’m certainly not alone in proposing legislation that seeks to prevent this unemployment disaster. On the national level, Congress is currently considering House Resolution 2353, better known as the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act. Introduced by Pennsylvania congressman Glenn Thompson, the bill easily passed the House and is now making its way through the Senate.

While it is, for the most part, an update to the Perkins Act from 2006, HR 2353 makes several crucial adjustments. First, it gives states the flexibility they need to implement job-training initiatives that target their unique needs. What works for Virginia won’t necessarily work for Oklahoma, and funding allocation shouldn’t be based on a state’s ability to fit its programs into narrow parameters. The bill also makes it easier for states to gain access to career and technical education funding. Through this initiative, over $7 billion in funding will be available over the next six years.

Contact your U.S. senator

Oklahoma’s workforce is currently on a shaky foundation. If we continue to ignore tech trends and refuse to acknowledge the looming unemployment crisis, millions will find themselves with no means of putting food on the table. The time to put safeguards in place is now. I will be calling my senators in support of HR2353 and will be at the State Capitol in the spring fighting for the future of Oklahoma’s workforce.

I hope you will do the same.