Too many jobs are low quality, but we can shape a higher quality ‘Work of the Future’ - colleges can help

Colleges and universities can support government, industry, and labor partners to help ensure emergent work is, in fact, worth working.
Blog Post
Feb. 16, 2021

It’s no longer news. Automation and emerging technologies are eliminating low-skill routine jobs while new higher-skill jobs in their place. The pandemic supercharged automation and the adoption of digital economy technologies of all sorts from Zoom in our schools to AI chatbots in our hospitals.

Whether you call it the “Future of Work” or “Work of the Future” or “Future of Workers” – most experts agree that we will all need to upskill to keep our now technology-enabled jobs or transition to new emerging jobs. Workers without bachelor's degrees will need to upskill first – and quickly. Women, racial minorities, low-wage workers, and rural residents at risk for displacement.

While a COVID-19 vaccine has arrived, it will take some time until 60-70% of the nation is vaccinated and we reach “herd immunity.” Of course, that assumes that enough anti-vaxxers can be convinced to take the vaccine to reach herd immunity.

That means the pandemic will, unfortunately, drag on and only continue to accelerate the pace of automation in America.

Automation will have many impacts on society, but I am cautiously optimistic that one silver lining will result in an improvement in “job quality.” Governments, businesses, labor groups, technologists, and even colleges and universities should take steps to ensure these new jobs are, in fact, worth working—that this ‘future work’ is higher quality work than the pervasive, low quality work we have today.

Too many jobs are low quality. We must ensure that the future provides quality work

The reason being? There aren’t enough good jobs to go around – plain and simple.

A Brookings Institution study suggested that 44 percent of all workers aged 18-64 make $18,000 a year, hardly enough to live, let alone raise a family. The average single year of tuition and fees at community college is $3,660—nearly 20 percent of what 53 million Americans make. Low-wage work is pervasive in every regional economy and not just limited to students or young workers just getting their start or those in the “gig economy.” Disadvantaged workers are more likely to hold existing low-quality jobs.

Research has shown that job quality has declined over the past 20 years. In response, academics and leaders from business, human resources, and organizational psychology have produced many worthy job quality frameworks to help us better understand what a “quality job” actually looks like.

Fundamentally, a quality job is one that pays a local living wage, provides paid sick leave, predictable and reliable hours, advancement opportunities, reasonable worker voice structures, among other markers of quality.

Other more humanized measures of job quality such as how much fulfillment we get from work are also worth paying attention to consider given that we spend nearly a third of our waking lives working. Half of U.S. workers are reported to be unhappy at work, and mental health issues are on the rise.

The Work of the Future can be better, higher quality work—and higher education can help

While many Americans fear automation, for valid reasons, we shouldn’t overlook the promise of technology to improve our work lives. Technology is a tool. A shovel can be used to garden and feed a village just as easily it can be used as a deadly weapon. The same is true about automation-enabling technologies.

While employers, governments, and worker voice organizations will need to lead the way on job quality improvements, colleges and universities can play a role through shrewd, innovative partnerships and strategic decisions. Below are three ideas to explore (future articles will expand on these themes):

Colleges can turn away employer partners who don’t have existing or “emergent” quality jobs to offer

Colleges and universities are increasingly positioned as economic development catalysts and can simply say no to employers who have jobs to offer that don’t pay a local living wage or offer job quality. On one hand, some job is better than no job, but once someone is stuck in a low-quality job it can become very difficult for them to leave.

Saying “no” to an employer partner is no easy feat for higher education institutions, especially those in a politically or financially precarious position, but it can and has been done. Drawing from expert interviews with 20 community college leaders last summer, my colleague Iris Palmer noted that:

“Several colleges reported that they had declined to provide training for an employer who would not provide high-enough quality jobs. Call centers and medical billing were the prime examples of the types of programs community colleges were reluctant to start because of low wages and poor working conditions. Other occupations that came up were cosmetology, phlebotomy, and certified nursing assistants.”

As the work of the future arrives, being mindful of new employer partnerships and the quality of the jobs they have to offer graduates will be critical for college leaders.

Research universities can partner with employers to synergistically align technology development partnerships with workforce development partnerships

Google, the Human Genome Project, Gatorade, and the iPhone all have roots traceable to university-born research. American research universities are some of the most inventive in the world, and as new technologies spin-out from universities and are licensed to larger employers, universities and industry partners can bring the conversation of workforce development upstream to the point of technology development.

By reducing silos between the parts of campus responsible for workforce strategy (e.g. offices of the provost, economic development, workforce development, continuing education, or even Cooperative Extension centers at land-grant universities) with the parts of campus responsible for technology-based economic development (e.g. technology transfer, research parks, offices of the vice-president for research), universities and employers can address any potential “skills gap” that may emerge from a university-born technology being adopted by a company.

Institutions can also partner with external intermediaries like federal Manufacturing USA Institutes, which are comprised of academic and corporate members, to pioneer new technologies in advanced manufacturing and models for training workers to effectively use these technologies. Several Institutes already do this work including the LIFT Manufacturing Institute in Detroit, Mi, AIM Photonics Institute in Albany, NY, and others.

Colleges can partner with employers to help workers transition from low-quality jobs to higher quality, future resilient jobs

It is a rarity that we have a conversation around “work of the future” without hearing “reskilling” or “life-long learning.” Learning to learn is a skill that can in itself improve employment-related security, retention, enjoyment, and effectiveness.

In an earlier piece for the World Economic Forum, I illustrated how quality, stackable “non-degree credentials” like certificates, certifications, licenses, and even apprenticeship programs can help workers upskill their way to work of the future while setting the stage for stackable, life-long learning.

Colleges and employers can partner to expand stackable, quality non-degree credentials (and traditional degree programs, when warranted) to help more workers transition to the new normal of life-long learning.

To be sure, higher education is in a precarious environment, many institutions are fighting for survival. Not all institutions are in a position to work with employers on issues of job quality. Federal and state investments to empower higher education to play a more proactive role in job quality can be especially valuable. But there is much that higher education institutions and their employer partners can do to improve job quality as the work of the future arrives.

Our team at New America will continue to unearth strategies over the coming year. Have Ideas for ensuring quality work of the future? Email me at or Tweet me @ShalinJyotishi.

This article is part of my 2021 Work of the Future series in which I’ll be sharing stories around how job quality can be improved as we transition to Work of the Future – and how academia, government, employers, labor, and technologists can collectively make it happen.

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