Jane Oates talks about re-skilling after layoffs and preparing for the future of work

Following the announcement of General Motors layoffs, WorkingNation President Jane Oates discusses solutions for worker retraining on an international news program.

This week’s news that General Motors will cut more than 14,000 jobs and close five North American plants was a shock, especially in a year that saw continued job growth and a commitment by political leaders to restore manufacturing jobs.

However, the factors which General Motors said led to its restructuring: advances in automation and driverless technology, shifting consumer tastes and a weakening global market are part of a larger story happening in the manufacturing industry. The estimated 3,300 blue-collar U.S. workers and 8,000 white-collar workers at GM who face layoffs or buyouts were caught up in the changing nature of work.

WorkingNation President Jane Oates appeared on the i24NEWS Stateside with David Shuster show, with anchor David Shuster, a former contributor to WorkingNation, Tuesday night to talk about what happens next for the individuals and communities affected by job loss. Retraining, upskilling and lifelong learning opportunities, according to Oates, are the solutions to adapting to this change.

“The best employers are training their current workforce for those jobs which are future jobs and when they know their current job is about to become obsolete. Getting those incumbent workers before they suffer one day of unemployment is the most humane thing to do, but its also great for the bottom line,” Oates said.

The displacement of workers, according to Oates, is not isolated to General Motors or blue-collar manufacturing. The transformation is happening across nearly every industry and economic class, where rote tasks are automated or can be performed by robots in the future.

Shuster asked with whom does the responsibility of job training fall to? Oates mentioned how forward-thinking employers are taking the lead in preparing for the challenges ahead in retraining and retaining loyal workers.

“Today, we’re all focusing on auto and manufacturing, but I think we’ve seen banks do it. We’ve seen the telecom community do it,” said Oates. “And I think we’re going to see it more and more.”

General Motors Headquarters in Detroit, Michigan.
Photo – Shutterstock

With G.M.’s multi-billion dollar investment in developing driverless technology, the company is laying out a future where driving as an occupation is at risk. Despite a demand for more semi-truck drivers, long-term career prospects are hazy as the leading domestic automaker places its bets on innovating autonomous vehicles. The potential for job destruction is high, but job opportunities are rising in creating and maintaining this technology.

Oates said that job centers in this country are here to help displaced workers navigate to skills training and employment programs that prepare them for new jobs. It is a matter of matching up their current skills with employers that can use them and learning new skills to do the work. However, it will be incumbent on workers to take advantage of these programs while still employed or early on after job loss before they fall into the rut of long-term unemployment.

“If [truckers] went to job counselors now and actually crosswalk the skills they have and saw what other industries those skills could easily transfer to, they could begin getting ready for those jobs now long before the first autonomous truck hits the road,” Oates said.

To get a glimpse of the potential recovery communities affected by the G.M. plant closures, read Washington Post reporter Amy Goldstein’s book on the shuttering of the Janesville, Wisconsin G.M. factory. Goldstein, who participated in WorkingNation’s “Future of Work” workshop with Poynter last September, documented how the devastated community and its workers found success, and some failure, in reskilling to new jobs.

RELATED: Janesville: a study of a manufacturing town’s near-death experience

Now that the nation is nearly a decade removed from the events of the Great Recession and the government bailout of U.S. automakers, the memory of those bailouts was not forgotten by President Donald Trump or the public. But rather than the response, which the president had following the announcement, he might have taken the full measure of why these changes were happening, or at least listened to Oates’ final comment.

When prompted by Shuster about the advice Oates would say to the president on preparing workers for the future of work, she noted how everyone, regardless of their job, must anticipate the changes happening now and over the next few years. The Great Recession may have caught workers off-guard, but there is ample evidence that mass unemployment can happen again if workers and policymakers are not equipped with the technical and soft skills to adapt.

“The skills you need in the workplace are changing,” Oates said. “So learning those skills of how to work in a team, how to communicate better, how to understand with empathy that people you are working with and for you. Those are incredibly important as we move forward.”

Join the Conversation: Watch Jane’s video and tell us your thoughts on how employers and policymakers can help displaced workers get back on their feet on our Facebook page.