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Backed by the Rockefellers, this design lab will tell you where the best jobs will be in America in 20 years

  • To address how automation is impacting today's jobs, the Rockefeller Foundation and New America have teamed up to kick off a pilot program called ShiftLabs.
  • ShiftLabs is studying five pilot communities in the U.S. to develop a long-term strategy for the future of jobs.
  • Jobs less likely to be impacted are those that have an emphasis on personal skills, communication, caregiving, empathy and creativity.
  • Another area of growth is in technical jobs creating artificial intelligence, such as developers and programmers.
GUANGZHOU, CHINA - NOVEMBER 18 : Guiding robot, made by 3d printer are being displayed during International Robotics Exhibition at Pazhou convention and exhibition center in Guangzhou, China on November 18, 2016.
Zhong Zhenbin | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

The rise of artificial intelligence and more automation has many worried about job security. Automation has already profoundly changed the way we do our jobs today, especially in manufacturing.

So what will happen to jobs as artificial intelligence evolves — enabling computers to analyze large amounts of data and formulate investment decisions, answer simple customer service questions or drive cars? What skills do workers need to earn a good living in the near future? What jobs are at the greatest risk?

These are the kinds of questions that the Rockefeller Foundation and New America are seeking to answer. The two partnered together this spring to kick off a pilot program called ShiftLabs to address the most pressing challenges related to automation and what will be required to earn a good living in the future.

Taking place in five cities across the country — Phoenix, Indianapolis, Miami, Detroit and Oklahoma City — ShiftLabs is collaborating with leaders in technology, industry, policy, philanthropy and culture. Among them: Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University; Betsy Masiello, former senior director of public policy, research and economics at Uber; and Noah Lang, co-founder and chief executive at Stride Health.

At ShiftLabs Phoenix, graphic recorder Sarah Spencer captures how automation is likely to impact young people entering the workforce.
Jamie Ell, Arizona State University
At ShiftLabs Phoenix, graphic recorder Sarah Spencer captures how automation is likely to impact young people entering the workforce.

Right now much of the discussion about jobs, automation and AI swings between two pendulums, explained Kristin Sharp, executive director of the Shift Commission at New America. In Silicon Valley the view is, not surprisingly, exceedingly rosy, while in Washington, D.C., the view is that robots are going to steal jobs and cause rioting in the streets, she said. Neither extreme is particularly helpful.

"We wanted to bridge the divide and have a more rational conversation about what we actually do. We brought together this high-powered group of people to do some economic scenario planning," she explained.

A tale of two cities: Indianapolis and Phoenix

The focus on specific cities is an effort to examine cities of different sizes and orientations toward work and technology. Indianapolis and Phoenix — the first two cities in the lineup — are opposites in many ways. Indianapolis, an industrial, manufacturing-based city has been struggling since its prominence in the industrial age of the Midwest.

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"Manufacturing has already changed a lot in terms of automation and AI. We know what happens when factories change and jobs go away," said Molly Martin, director of New America Indianapolis, who is spearheading ShiftLabs' on-the-ground efforts in the city.

Because of its history, the city is open to new opportunities and is really thinking about the future. Automation has already hit them hard in different ways, she said. Indianapolis, part of America's Rust Belt, saw a manufacturing boom in the early 20th century, then a subsequent decline starting in the mid 20th century as globalization and automation hollowed out U.S. manufacturing.

On the other end of the spectrum is Phoenix, a young city that has been growing over the past 30 years. Its population increased by more than half a million since 2010. The fast-growing city is optimistic about technology because it hasn't seen a decline the way Indianapolis has.

Megan Garcia, a senior fellow at New America and facilitator of ShiftLabs Phoenix, discusses ways to bring local leaders together to decide how to prepare for automation.
Jamie Ell, Arizona State University
Megan Garcia, a senior fellow at New America and facilitator of ShiftLabs Phoenix, discusses ways to bring local leaders together to decide how to prepare for automation.

"Cities like Phoenix don't have a manufacturing base as a huge part of their economy. They've had very little negative repercussions of automation thus far," said Megan Garcia, senior fellow and director of growth at New America National Network, who is heading ShiftLabs in Phoenix.

Yet the city's rose-colored glasses may not serve it well. One out of three jobs in Phoenix, or 650,000 people, are at high risk of being affected by automation, Garcia said.

Phoenix's population resembles an inverse bell curve, with many people concentrated on either end of the income spectrum, Garcia said. There are many minimum-wage workers with little education making $10 to $15 an hour. Then there are many on the high end of the income scale, such as doctors and lawyers. Those on the lower end of the income and education scale are most at risk at having their jobs affected by automation. By identifying the specific risks early, "Phoenix has a huge opportunity to get ahead of it and make some changes now," Garcia said.

Examining the AI threat 

Gauging the impact of artificial intelligence on jobs is often organized along industry lines. Automation and artificial intelligence are seen as a threat to jobs in manufacturing, while the advent of self-driving cars poses a threat to jobs in transport. ShiftLabs is focused on examining the threat through another lens: identifying and promoting job skills that have a low likelihood of being automated.

Phoenix, for instance, has a workforce with many at the low end of the wage scale, such as restaurant workers, cashier jobs in retail or stocking shelves — all of which are at big risk of being automated. The solution to this? More education. Those with higher education levels are more likely to hold jobs that are less likely to be automated, said Garcia.

(From left to right) Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University; Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of New America; and Greg Stanton, mayor of Phoenix, at ShiftLabs Phoenix
Jamie Ell, Arizona State University
(From left to right) Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University; Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of New America; and Greg Stanton, mayor of Phoenix, at ShiftLabs Phoenix

Recognizing the trend, some companies are working to retool employees. Walmart in Phoenix has been moving away from human cashiers, so the company has been transitioning the former cashiers to manage warehouse stocking and distribution of orders for customers who order online. Similarly, Starbucks has a partnership with Arizona State University to give employees the chance to earn a bachelor's degree online for free in any subject area.

Often, the fear around automation is that it will replace jobs. But automation is just as likely to change jobs, said Shift's Sharp. One example might be trucking. Thanks to self-driving vehicles, many believe truckers will be out of jobs in the near future. But the need for trucking is not going to go away, said Sharp. But instead of one driver, there is likely to be a peloton of three trucks that need to be monitored remotely — by a person. The need for logistical expertise will also continue, as people must figure out how to place cargo in the truck and to load and offload efficiently. These jobs may look different from today, but the need for these tasks and oversight will remain.

Redirecting the future workforce

Another approach ShiftLabs is taking is to identify and redirect workers toward professions that are less likely to be affected by automation. This includes jobs that have more of an emphasis on personal skills, communication, caregiving, empathy and creativity. Another area of growth right now is in technical jobs creating artificial intelligence, such as developers and programmers.

Already, cities are trying to adapt to the paradigm shift in the marketplace. In Indianapolis, car racing is a major industry because of the Indy 500. The racing industry is continually working to make cars faster, safer and more comfortable, said Martin.

"They are learning valuable lessons about making products and automating the production," she said, adding that automation hasn't meant fewer jobs, just different ones. Indianapolis is home to many experts who are enthusiastic about developing new technologies for car racing, but that knowledge is siloed. Engineers from IndyCar and those making automated cars don't intersect, Shift explained, adding that making these kinds of connections is one of ShiftLabs' aims.

"We want to bring together people who normally don't talk to one another so they can have this conversation about how we get ready for the future. They don't often have it together, so we are trying to create the network of people that are thinking about these things," she said.

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— By Ellen Sheng, special to CNBC.com