Much like crises of the past, the coronavirus pandemic will leave a lasting footprint on society, causing us to rethink how we live, work, and learn.
As we transition to distance learning, we need only look at other pandemics to see how deadly outbreaks recalibrated the economy and ways of life.
Historical Impact of Pandemics on the Future of Work
The Black Death ravaged Europe in the 14th century, but it is also credited with reorganizing the economic landscape. Mass labor shortages increased the bargaining power of workers, allowing them to win two to three times pre-plague pay and shorter working hours.
Simultaneously, the countryside, once host to the centuries-old feudal system, saw mass migration to urban areas by peasants, giving birth to a middle class and the shift of power away from feudal lords.
Finally, labor shortages and the rise in cost per worker also led to the invention of labor-saving devices like the printing press, ship rigging systems, and agricultural harvesting tools.
The 1918 Influenza, also known as the Spanish Influenza, raged throughout the world from 1918 to 1919 infecting one-third of the global population.
Crippling the workforce and increasing the value and bargaining power of workers, a 2007 study by Thomas Garrett, an economics researcher, concluded that the 1918 Influenza led to an increase in wages and per capita income, especially in regions most impacted by outbreaks.
The 2002 and 2003 SARS outbreak in East Asia, though it did not reach pandemic levels, also left a lasting impact on the economy of affected countries, and in particular China.
Social distancing practices led to a massive boom in the ecommerce sector for consumer goods as more people shopped online and grew wary of more public markets and shopping centers. In addition, the outbreak also instigated a rise in internet connectivity as well as cell phone usage, connecting millions electronically.
A New Economic Future
In all of these cases the pandemic accelerated economic forces already in play. Therefore, to understand how the coronavirus will impact the future of work for students, it is necessary to assess the economic trends already in motion and whose evolutions are expedited in this crisis.
In this article, we will break down three of these trends and describe how they will impact students and the skills they will need in the future.
Prior to the coronavirus, companies and people were increasingly embracing automation because of its ability to cut out redundancies and busy work, which saves time, shifts focus to what’s more important and critical, and invents new ways to grow and perform.
Now in the wake of this pandemic, it is likely that automation will be accelerated because declines in revenue make human capital more expensive.
To understand which areas of the economy will be most impacted, a 2019 report by Brookings studied automation by industry and quantified the potential for jobs to be lost to automation within each.
As is demonstrated, automation tends to negatively impact low skill work (generally requiring a high school diploma) while creating opportunities for increased high skill (requiring at least a bachelor’s degree) and middle skill (requiring at least a high school diploma and technical training) positions.
This shift toward middle and high-skill jobs has been rising. A 2017 report by Burning Glass Technologies found:
- High-skill jobs have 25 percent more job openings than qualified workers.
- Middle-skill jobs have 13 percent more openings than qualified workers.
- Low-skill jobs, however, have seven percent fewer openings than workers.
Even when the pandemic comes to an end, hastened robotization is unlikely to reverse, so the growth in middle- and high-skill jobs and reduction in low-skill work will continue to manifest.
What does this mean for students?
Growing middle- and high-skill positions are defined by cognitive, non-routine tasks that a machine simply cannot do. They require career readiness skills like problem solving, creativity, and critical thinking to sustain the new economy.
These new work opportunities also demand students learn how to learn. For example, a Dell Technology report found that 85 percent of forecasted jobs for 2030 still do not exist yet largely because technology is expanding so rapidly. Students are preparing for jobs that are yet to be imagined. When they graduate, they need to know how to adapt to the roles available to them.
Similarly, a Deloitte report finds that the half-life of skills is now five years and companies will need to invest in continual professional development for workers, meaning that career readiness skills entail knowing how to learn, adapt, and embrace change and ambiguity.
Shift Toward Remote Workspaces
Whether mandated or urged to, millions of Americans are now working from home. Peter Schwartz, a futurist, explains:
“We are conducting a natural experiment...One we would prefer not to have conducted. But we’re going to learn the hard way, rather quickly and by necessity, everything that can be done remotely. … We’re not going back to zero afterward. What do we learn out of all this in terms of how our society can change?”
Thanks to telecommuting technology, this trend has already been under way for years. In fact, a 2017 Gallup poll determined that 43 percent of Americans worked from home with some frequency. And by mid-March of this year, two-thirds of employers were transitioning to remote work environments.
Quantifying this rapid transition, Kentik, a global provider of network analytics, found that video conferencing traffic has doubled since the outbreak began.
When the outbreak is over, some people may return to offices. However, it is also likely that the benefits of remote work will tempt many to at least do it with more frequency if not permanently: greater work-life balance and flexibility throughout the day for employees in addition to cost-savings on overhead and recruiting benefits for businesses.
Moreover, the coronavirus pandemic is proving that large-scale remote work is feasible, and it’s likely that this will prompt a continuation of this new approach.
What does this mean for students?
Remote workplaces have an increased premium on digital skills as well as social and emotional skills, requiring workers to adeptly use technology for the entirety of their business processes and to successfully collaborate and lead remotely.
Students need to develop basic digital skills to navigate digital interfaces, access the resources they need, and perform basic functions.
They also need organizational and project management skills to plan and execute projects online and in collaboration with others as well as advanced digital communication skills to work in conjunction with their coworkers across time zones to drive business processes forward. Finally, students will also need digital creation skills to build prototypes virtually, develop online programs to solve business problems, and construct systems using a suite of digital tools.
Students must learn to use technology – to troubleshoot it, to create with it, and to collaborate through it. At the same time, students need the opportunity to practice self-management, leadership, collaboration, and communication online.
Rise of Revision of Industries
The coronavirus pandemic disproportionately affects some industries over others. Joseph B. Fuller, the co-lead of Harvard’s Future of Work initiative, explains that air travel, hospitality, tourism, and high-end consumer retailers as well as events like sports, cinema, concerts, business conferences, and trade fairs are some of the most impacted. In addition, manufacturing, especially in sectors with long supply chains is also suffering.
While the coronavirus will subside, it is likely that there will be permanent scars in these sectors. How will this collective experience change how we think about travel as a necessity or large gatherings as entertainment? Will manufacturing seek to shorten supply chains to prevent this catastrophic disruption in the future? Several experts confirm the likelihood of these cultural shifts.
Similarly, much like the SARS outbreak at the beginning of the century, coronavirus is driving people into their homes and online retail spaces. With stores shuttered, restaurants open only for delivery, trade shows cancelled, and business meetings postponed, consumers are finding products and services online. Therefore, companies not equipped to sell digitally are disadvantaged.
Ecommerce has been slowly outpacing brick-and-mortar shopping in the past few years, but as this pandemic subsides, this shift will likely keep hold as more consumers and businesses find it less time intensive and more cost efficient to buy and sell online.
What does this mean for students?
Resulting from these industry shifts is the opportunity to innovate new ways to help people connect with each other and the world around them and to efficiently bring infrastructure, products, and services to market. Students will have the opportunity to problem solve these challenges. Problem-solving skills like computational thinking and design thinking along with competencies in collaboration, innovation, creativity, and programming will make these possible.
Change and challenge are opportunities for creativity. We can empower students to thrive in this.