The Almost Overwhelming Task of Retraining the Workforce

January 26, 2018, 2:00 PM UTC

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Good morning one last time from Davos, where the U.S. president just finished reading a speech wholly from the teleprompter, declared America open for business, and asserted that “America first does not mean America alone.” It was a self-congratulatory speech that, but for one gentle jab at those in the room who supported Hillary Clinton, completely avoided provoking his well-heeled audience. (Trump did take a shot at the news media, as did World Economic Founder Klaus Schwab, but that won’t make headlines.)

Thursday night, as Donald Trump dined with a group of 15 business executives—I’m told by someone who was there the president was relaxed among fellow businesspeople and in listening mode—Fortune also hosted a dinner. We gathered an only-slightly-larger group to discuss one of the more pressing topics among corporate and government types this year in Davos, the future of work.

This wasn’t so much a conversation about whether robots powered by artificial intelligence will eliminate everyone’s jobs as an acknowledgement that technology will obliterate work as we know it and how to encourage the necessary “re-skilling” in response.

As happens in Davos, our’s was a high-powered gathering. At my table alone were Jim Kim, president of the World Bank, and CEOs Ginni Rometty of IBM (IBM), Marc Benioff of Salesforce (CRM), Paul Polman of Unilever (UL), Andrew Liveris of Dow (DOW), and Feike Sijbesma of DSM. (The conglomerate’s name once was Dutch State Mines, but Sijbesma likes to say it stands for “Doing Something Meaningful.)

Training people for the new economy is complicated and overwhelming. Our dinner conversation ranged from focusing on feeding children in developing countries as a precursor to educating them to teaching specifically employable skills (as opposed to, say, poetry) to the need for corporations who demand specific skills to do more with their time and money to ensure a supply of workers who have them.

It’s a daunting problem. At the same time, I was struck by the optimism of the group—though it occurred to me more than once this week that attendees at the forum are overwhelmingly optimists. (Nature or nurture? I think I know the answer.)

They also are realists, of course, perhaps no one more than Jim Kim, a former university president and groundbreaking physician. He speaks regularly, here for example, about the concept of “reference income,” the notion that as incomes rise in developing countries so does awareness of how much more money people in the developed world make. That leads directly to dissatisfaction, yet another challenge to worry about for those mindful of the global economy and its workforce.

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