Interview Of The Week

Interview Of The Week: Jamie Merisotis, Future of Work Expert

Jamie Merisotis is the author of two widely acclaimed books, Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines, published in October 2020, and  America Needs Talent, named a Top 10 Business book of 2016 by Booklist. He is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation, a private, independent U.S. foundation focused on increasing education beyond high school. Merisotis has extensive experience as a global consultant, having advised organizations in southern Africa, the former Soviet Union, Europe, and other parts of the world. Merisotis is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, serves as a governor of the Ditchley Foundation in the UK and as a trustee for several local, state, and national organizations in the United States. He recently spoke to The Innovator about the intersections of learning, technology, and the work of the future. 

Q: What are some of the key takeaways from your book Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines?

JM: Machines are good at tasks that require repetition and the recognition of patterns.  Humans are good at jobs that require subtlety and nuance and a high degree of interaction with people. Humans and machines can complement each other’s strengths but the type of human skills that will be needed will evolve as machines take over some current jobs.  This means that leaders of companies and organizations will have to take responsibility for the lifelong development and growth of human workers to help them be compassionate and ethical, develop new skills through their jobs and continuously learn.

Q: Compassion isn’t a word that is usually applied to business. Why do you list this as an important trait?

JM: Let’s say you are working in the marketing division of a pharmaceutical company and you are trying to improve the reach of a product for diabetes. The smart thing to do is to place employees into the field and spend time with people who have diabetes so that the company really understands not just the quarterly sales targeting and marketing opportunities, but what patients are experiencing and the human impact of the product. Being authentic leads to a double bottom line: the more successful the company’s efforts are on behalf of the customer, the more successful the company is. This is just one example. Increasingly, empathy and compassion will be required for what we do as human workers. Employers need to embrace human work traits and focus on what customers and communities really need. Meaning and purpose are important for companies and for their employees. We work to earn a paycheck, but also to have dignity and meaning and social mobility.  It is important for employers to understand this. I mention in the book that according to Gallup research even people making the lowest wages are willing to trade off some money for meaning.

Q: It seems to me that although there is a lot of talk about preparing people for the jobs of the future but there hasn’t been that much action. Why do you think that is?

JM: Employers understand that, from the worker’s perspective, ongoing training is a good thing, but I think a lot of them think of it as an employee benefit and not as something that aids the company. Lumina has funded some recent research that shows the return on investment for employer-provided training.  The research, done in partnership with Accenture, showed that companies got back far more than they invested. Benefits included higher retention, greater productivity, and improvement to the bottom line. The issue is that, for most small and mid-size companies, investing in continuous learning is difficult. We need to look at the best way to develop systems and programs that allow employees of companies of all sizes to learn, earn and serve on an ongoing basis. Government support is a necessary component. I think it is also important to explore the role of private capital markets. Today when we talk about impact investing the focus is on climate change. With automation and AI driving more and more what humans have historically done, investing in human capital to ensure we have people to do the jobs that people are uniquely qualified for seems like a good investment.

Q: How do employers know what qualifications will be needed?

JM: Industry associations are trying to help. So are governments. The European Union has made more robust efforts to determine qualifications than the U.S. The EU has developed the European Qualifications which seeks to support cross-border mobility of learners and workers, promote lifelong learning and professional development across Europe. It is meant to serve as a translation tool to make national qualifications easier to understand and more comparable.  The EU also has the Tuning project, which focuses in part on trying to align academic disciplines to what employers are seeking. In the U.S. the federal model is decentralized so rather than having the European equivalent of a ministry there are just loosely coordinated efforts.

Q: Robots are most associated with replacing factory jobs. How do you see these workers adapting?

JM: In my book I give an example of a guy working the assembly line at Cummins, an Indiana-based maker of diesel and alternative fuel engines and generators. He spent years working 10-hour shifts stuffing pistons into diesel engines for pickup trucks. As the assembly lines changed, his job changed, and he found himself sharing the same space with, and literally working alongside, collaborative robots. Since he started out on the assembly line and knew the process, he was put in charge of training the robots and training other workers to do the jobs robots don’t have the dexterity to do. He also serves as a problem solver when something goes wrong. This is a perfect example of “complementarity” – humans and robots working together, each doing what they do best.

Q: How do you see skills mapping working across other sectors?

JM: I don’t think we are doing a good job at a societal level of addressing how work is changing. A lot of the talk is about teaching everyone how to code, but for many workers that just doesn’t make sense. For instance, there are more than 3 million truck drivers in the U.S. As driverless vehicles become more prevalent, that number will surely dwindle. Clearly, we will have to retool what truck drivers do, but it is unlikely that we will be able to turn them into coders. But truckers do understand how to move materials from one place to another. According to labor data, the demand for logistics experts was surging even before COVID, and it’s even higher now. This is a clear example of how moving people into adjacent sectors and jobs can work, with the right training. When automatic teller machines were introduced in the banking industry, human bank tellers didn’t go away; their jobs simply changed. Now they do a lot of trouble shooting and act as customer service agents – jobs requiring human skills that ATMs don’t have. So these people are more valuable than ever; they just need to be trained in a different way, for a higher level of human interaction. Accounting is another area where jobs will be most susceptible to being replaced by AI in the coming decade, so companies are racing to get people trained in the customer service, human interaction side of their businesses.

Q: How do you advise leaders of companies to prepare for the future of work?

JM: Develop innovative new models for learning and working that prepare workers for jobs that require a high level of human talent. This is going to require an all-hands-on-deck approach. Employers and educators need to dramatically change what they are doing and focus on preparing people for work only humans can do. Workers should own their learning in the same way they take charge of their health and tend to it on a regular basis. We need to break the cycle of ‘you learn when you are young and then you spend the rest of your life working.’ That is over. Workers need to earn and learn and serve others at the same time to benefit their companies and society as a whole — and it is the responsibility of employers to enable this.

The Innovator’s readers are invited to join a May 12 Zoom Salon with Merisotis to get more of his insights on learning, technology, and the work of the future. 

The Zoom Salon is an interactive session with an introduction by Merisotis and a moderated discourse.  Register (for free) here

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About the author

Jennifer L. Schenker

Jennifer L. Schenker

Jennifer L. Schenker, an award-winning journalist, has been covering the global tech industry from Europe since 1985, working full-time, at various points in her career for the Wall Street Journal Europe, Time Magazine, International Herald Tribune, Red Herring and BusinessWeek. She is currently the editor-in-chief of The Innovator, an English-language global publication about the digital transformation of business. Jennifer was voted one of the 50 most inspiring women in technology in Europe in 2015 and 2016 and was named by Forbes Magazine in 2018 as one of the 30 women leaders disrupting tech in France. She has been a World Economic Forum Tech Pioneers judge for 20 years. She lives in Paris and has dual U.S. and French citizenship.