Jan 16, 2019

Axios Future

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1 big thing: Off the sidelines and earning $30 an hour

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Despite the threat of recession, the U.S. economy continues to run at a high clip, and companies — desperate for workers — are lowering the qualifications they've previously demanded of new employees. But even so, they are finding that much of the pool of long-term jobless Americans first require training and help in the very basics: being on time, organizing reliable transportation, paying for a place to live and funding any required uniform.

What's happening: Cities across the U.S. are stepping in with "life and employment skills" classes and assistance for Americans who for years and decades have been entirely left out of the economy — former convicts, ex-drug addicts and others at the fringes.

The big picture: One of the major factors animating the last two or three years of political turbulence in the U.S. has been the economic sidelining of millions of Americans as jobs have moved overseas or been automated away.

But this narrative leaves out an invisible swath of the country that is absent from the primary Labor Department statistics entirely — tens of millions of long-term unemployed, who have been jobless for a year or more. For years, company executives and government officials have routinely described these people as largely beyond help — typically, economists have said they are too old to be retrained for new work, too drug-addled to pass blood tests or disqualified because of a prison record.

  • The dire need for new workers has turned this reality on its head.

In Denver, John Locke, a program manager for Kiewit, a major construction company, tells Axios that the firm is looking to hire up to 600 people by next summer to rebuild a 10-mile section of Interstate 70.

  • But the city has a 3% unemployment rate, much tighter than the national 3.9% figure, making it extremely difficult to find workers.
  • This has left companies like Kiewit open to hiring people who come with a lot of "barriers" to working in a traditional job — like financial problems that prevent them from having a regular place to live, transportation or child care.

About a year and a half ago, the city and state launched a program called WorkNow, an association that organizes all of these services. It can help find money to pay emergency rent, provide a pair of boots, set up shuttles to a construction site so workers can be on time, and find child care.

Mara Picazo, an apprentice for a contractor on the Interstate 70 project, is a 29-year-old mother of two young children who was earning just $9.25 an hour as a flagger when managers suggested she apply to be an apprentice for a regular job. Three years later, she is earning $22 an hour and is about to graduate. When she does, she will receive a raise to $30 an hour.

  • But before getting there, she had "problems with money. WorkNow helped me pay for books — they paid $400. They helped me buy tools," Picazo said.

In Washington, D.C., Henry Schultz tells a similar story. He is an adviser to the Excel Automotive Institute, which teaches auto mechanics largely to ex-convicts.

  • Last year, 12 young men and women finished the course, and nine of them passed a grueling electrical certification course.
  • Later this month, they will continue and learn to fix brakes, steering and suspension systems.
  • When they are done, Ford has agreed to hire them as entry-level mechanics, Schultz said. The average entry-level pay is about $16.50 an hour, he said.

But before any get started, they have to take a 48-hour "life and employment skills" course carried out by an agency called Thrive, which is similar to the Denver program and teaches how to be on time, carry oneself, write a resume and so on.

  • Jed Kolko, chief economist at Indeed, said that a test will come when the economy slows down: "Do they keep their jobs or are they the first to be laid of, and if they are laid off, how much of those skills translate to the next job?"
2. Employers crave soft skills

A business meeting in 1964. Photo: McKeown/Daily Express/Hulton/Getty

Some experts warn of an impending automation-fueled upending of work, and they argue that non-technical skills will become increasingly valuable as rote tasks are handed over to computers and robots.

Axios' Kaveh Waddell reports: Automation is roiling jobs, but in a way that is redefining the skills in demand. The top five skills companies now seek, according to a LinkedIn analysis, are creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability and time management.

  • Their popularity outstripped more than two dozen hard skills.

Why it matters: These are skills on which humans still have a monopoly — they're far beyond the reach of even the most advanced AI systems. (Granted, they'd be useful even if robots weren't on the horizon.)

Trawling its vast database of profiles and job postings, LinkedIn says these skills are in high demand relative to supply. People who list them on their profiles go on to be hired into a wide variety of jobs, LinkedIn tells Axios:

  • People who count "creativity" as a skill are mostly hired as marketing specialists, graphic designers, teachers and project managers.
  • People who describe themselves as "adaptable" were hired as teachers and project managers, too — plus customer service representatives and nurses.
  • Oral communication skills are in highest demand relative to supply, LinkedIn reports.

Hard skills, however, have not gone out of style.

  • Employers also want expertise in cloud computing, artificial intelligence and user-experience design, as well as good managers and analytical thinkers.

"Soft skills are in hot demand because talents such as creativity and collaboration are vital for the digital economy," says Darrell West, director of Brookings' Center for Technology Innovation. One example, says West:

"Software designers need people who can translate their work and make devices easy to use by non-specialists. That means teams of technical and non-technical people who can work well together. One without the other will mean devices that are too complicated to use."
3. Layoffs for Japanese hotel bots

A robo-dinosaur concierge at a Japanese hotel. Photo: Trevor Williams/WireImage

More than 100 hospitality robots have been handed pink slips in Japan after being deemed more trouble than they're worth, WSJ reports.

Kaveh writes: Bots staff a buzzy Japanese chain called Henn-na — or "Strange" — write Alastair Gale and Takashi Mochizuki. They appear at the concierge desk, the bellhop stand and the bar, and perform a welcome dance in the lobby.

  • They were meant to cut down on human staffing needs.
  • But because the bots kept breaking down, flesh-and-blood employees ended up having to clock overtime.

The chain's robot woes are a reminder of the still-primitive state of robotics and — with a few exceptions — voice assistants.

  • “When you actually use robots you realize there are places where they aren’t needed—or just annoy people,” Hideo Sawada, president of the company that owns the hotel, told Gale and Mochizuki.

This funny anecdote, which opens the WSJ article, is a master class in bad robots:

"Yoshihisa Ishikawa’s one-night stay at a robot-staffed hotel in western Japan wasn’t relaxing. He was roused every few hours during the night by the doll-shaped assistant in his room asking: 'Sorry, I couldn’t catch that. Could you repeat your request?' By 6 a.m., he realized the problem: His heavy snoring was triggering the robot."
4. Worthy of your time

Western edge of iceberg A68, 2017. Photo: NASA/Nathan Kurtz

Robots and cows (Steve Lohr — NYT)

The melting of Antarctica (Andrew Freedman — Axios)

$4 million for an 1885 dollar (Fang Block — Barron's)

The job of being a 41-year-old quarterback (Adam Kilgore — WP)

How Mark Burnett resurrected Trump (Patrick Radden Keefe — New Yorker)

5. 1 fun thing: Booze-hailing

Order up! Image: Carlo Ratti Associati

We've gotten used to ride-hailing. Tap into an app on your phone, and a few minutes later, your car rolls up.

Axios' Erica Pandey reports: Now, the new thing is booze-hailing: an autonomous bar-on-wheels that you can summon at the click of a button to get your drink on.

What's happening: Carlo Ratti, a professor at MIT and the head of an Italian urban design firm, is out with a prototype called GUIDO. The bar on wheels can find its way to you and serve you up any number of cocktails — and the entire process requires zero humans. The bar drives itself and the bartender is a robot, too.