In the US, recent jobs reports have generally been met with enthusiasm and positivity.
Unemployment continues to drop to 10-year lows and most economists believe America is approaching “full employment.” Wage growth remains in positive territory.
And yet, people are angry.
Blue-collar manufacturing jobs have disappeared. Income inequality is increasing and the once-steadfast middle class is being hollowed out.
Their anger arises from a sense of economic insecurity and it is the idea that weaves together Brexit, Trump’s takeover of the Republican party, and Le Pen’s National Front.
The acute disconnect is alarming.
How can the US be at full employment and yet harbour such profound socioeconomic discontent?
The Dignity of Work
A reporter for the New York Times recently rode with a number of truck drivers to learn about their job.
Truck drivers spoke at length about the low pay and health issues the job entailed. The title of the article was “Alone on the Open Road: Truckers feel like ‘Throwaway People.’”
Much has been made of the looming devastation that self-driving technology will have on the 3.5 million truck drivers in the US, as well as how these millions of newly unemployed individuals will add fuel to the populist flames. The concern is misdirected.
Digging deeper into the data clarifies this disconnect further.
Many are in part-time jobs or are underemployed for their experience and skillset.
Only 62% of Americans are even participating in the labour market, and a growing number of people in their prime working years have given up on trying to find a job.
The populist language of modern politicians confirms this thesis. Americans are being “left behind.” Workers in the Rust Belt have become a “forgotten people.”
People may have jobs, but they’re not the jobs they want. They lack the purpose, stability, and opportunity for advancement that give their work meaning and dignity.
Any approach to this issue should focus on two key issues. The first is to create new jobs that are accessible to broader geographies and demographics. The second is to provide these workers with the retraining in the skills they need for those jobs.
An engine for job creation
Cities have always been durable hubs of economic progress and job creation because of the concentrated networks of specialized talent they create.
For knowledge workers, technology has weakened this geographical stranglehold.
With the right infrastructure, a digital marketer, visual designer, or Android developer can be as prolific working from a cabin in Montana as they are in the offices of a technology company in San Francisco.
However, this emerging flexibility for knowledge workers has yet to impact the more traditional secondary and service sectors such as manufacturing, healthcare, and retail.
Through services like ODesk, a software developer based in Akron, Ohio can provide their services to thousands of companies across the world. The same cannot be said of the very physical skills of a healthcare worker or an automotive plant worker.
This fundamental and global labour inefficiency is the keystone to the value of augmented reality technologies unlocks for modern economies.
Redistributing skilled labour
As an example, many medical clinics struggle to hire the qualified mid-level staff — medical assistants, nurses, back office administrators — to support the growing piles of documentation and paperwork necessary to operate in the American healthcare system.
Because of the real-time and context-dependent nature of this work, health systems have struggled to centralize and standardize these administrative services, and have placed the majority of the documentation burden upon the most expensive and highly trained resources in healthcare: the doctors.
By equipping doctors with augmented reality wearables like Google Glass to stream the real time audio and video of the patient encounter to a highly trained remote scribe, Augmedix is able to offload the three to four hours per day of documentation from the doctor to their remote scribe.
By enabling the doctor to operate at the top of their licence, Augmedix reduces the cost of care, improves the patient experience, reduces medical errors, and reduces physician burnout.
In addition, the location-agnostic nature of these augmented reality jobs helps to redistribute skilled labour from highly concentrated and affluent urban areas to lower cost areas more in need of job creation.
Faster retraining in a fast-moving world
In addition to unlocking new opportunities for underserved areas of the labour market, augmented reality technologies are playing an increasingly pivotal role in retraining employees to handle these rapid shifts in the labour markets.
According to the World Economic Forum’s The Future of Jobs report, more employers are focused on retraining employees — 65% — than any other strategy.
Upskill, an augmented reality company in the manufacturing and field services sectors, uses wearable technologies to provide step-by-step instructions to industrial workers.
In a side-by-side comparison presented in the Harvard Business Review, providing this real-time instruction improved the performance of a GE technician by 34% on the first try.
With the pace of technological progress only accelerating, and with increasing specialization becoming the norm in every industry, reducing the time necessary to retrain workers is pivotal to maintaining the competitiveness of industrialized economies.
What the future holds for augmented reality and jobs
Meaningful employment remains the cornerstone of economic and political stability, and focus must be allocated to ensuring not just that there is employment, but that it is meaningful.
This means that businesses and governments should focus on not just employment rates, but on the metrics that measure the quality of the jobs being created — part-time workers, rapid job turnover, contract labour, and wage growth stagnation, to name a few.
Solutions like Augmedix and Upskill can unlock opportunities and improve prospects for underemployed workers in low-growth regions.
Most importantly, businesses and governments should recognize that, when it comes to the future of work, technology is a double-edged sword.
Technology is a force that has the potential to eliminate entire industries through robotics and automation, and for that we should be concerned.
But it also continues to be a catalyst for the creation of entirely new industries and opportunities, as well as a way for the economy to unlock inefficiencies in the market and create win-win opportunities for employers and employees alike.