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See more on the work of the future—and how people can find and keep good jobs in an age of smart machines and artificial intelligence—in the new Jamie Merisotis book “Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines.”

An election noisily settled. Word of a COVID-19 vaccine. Hopeful jobs numbers: There’s room for optimism about 2021, but we’ll need everyone pulling together to make it a year of real economic recovery.

By summer’s end, more than 57 million people had sought unemployment benefits since mid-March. And we know many jobs aren’t coming back because the pandemic accelerated a shift toward jobs demanding higher levels of education and skills. Most affected are low-wage workers in service industries who typically don’t have the skills to change fields without more education and training, according to Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workplace. And unemployment is higher among Hispanic, Black, and Asian workers, compared to whites.

Certain industries such as travel and hospitality may never recover to past levels of employment. Hospitality giant MGM laid off 18,000 workers, a quarter of its workforce, in August, and the major U.S. airlines collectively cut 40,000 jobs in October.

“I think this is going to be a major shift” in the workplace, said Jane Oates of WorkingNation, a non-profit that raises awareness about challenges facing U.S. workers.  “This is going to be bigger and broader” than the workforce changes during the Great Recession of 2007-2009.

A Harris Poll commissioned by USA Today confirms that change, showing that 63 percent of workers who lost their jobs because of the outbreak will or plan to change industries.

But starting over seems daunting to many workers, especially if they are older than 40, Carnevale pointed out. And even those who do switch careers can expect to receive a pay cut.

I believe our nation needs to address these hard facts with a transformative program to provide more of our citizens with the broad skills that will allow them to adapt to the changes we’ve experienced in the past year and the changes we can’t predict in the future.

We need to create the opportunity for continuous learning on a vast scale. That means strengthening our community college system, making training more affordable and accessible for adult learners, and breaking down the barriers of inequality that the pandemic has exposed.  And we need to extend opportunity to all, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, immigration status, and other factors.

Our challenge as a society is not to find ways to support people without jobs. The challenge instead is to provide broad opportunities for learning to ensure that everyone can develop the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed to do the work only humans can do – human work.

Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation. His new book, “Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines,” is now available. 

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