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How to Deal With a Changing Workplace: Worry Less, Prepare More

July 17, 2018, 12:15 AM UTC

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” President Franklin Roosevelt told the country in 1933. His message came amid the epic unemployment of the Great Depression, but the same fear over jobs is very much alive today.

More than 75% of U.S. households are anxious about job loss related to automation, artificial intelligence, and globalization, according to former U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Penny Pritzker.

Speaking at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen, Colo., on Monday, Pritzker said this fear is unhealthy and that the country has to do more to prepare Americans for a changing workplace.

“In the U.S., there’s a friction between education and being ready for work. We need to make it easier for people to get skills,” said Pritzker, who led a task force by the Council on Foreign Relations that recently issued a major report on the issue.

She added that the U.S. should emulate the likes of Germany and Switzerland, and boost the amount of practical apprenticeships available to Americans. Pritzker also stressed that American families need to see a career path from the tenth grade into a workplace in which robots and machine learning will have a bigger and bigger place.

This notion that the country must spend less time fearing automation, and more time preparing for it is shared by Bradley Tusk, who runs the venture capital firm Tusk Ventures. He cited the example of automated trucking, which will eliminate jobs but also give rise to new ones.

Pritzker and Tusk also identified immigration as another pain point in the U.S. workforce.

“If you look at the polling, and get the politics out of it, you see Americans want legal immigration to work well,” said Tusk, who says immigration is among many controversial topics on which most of the country agrees. The trouble, he added, is the current political system, in which activist primary voters hold sway, thwarts compromise and consensus.

Tusk said on stage at Brainstorm Tech on Monday that the country needs a simpler voting system, in which citizens could cast ballots with their smartphones. He claimed this would increase voter participation and elect more politicians who would enact middle-of-the-road solutions on immigration and other issues.

Solving the immigration impasse may also be critical to the future health of the American workforce. According to Pritzker, immigration is driving growth in foreign cities like Toronto, while the U.S. is pursuing policies, including restrictions on spousal visas, that make it harder to attract talent.

“It’s crazy to say you get an H1-b visa but your spouse can’t work,” she said.

Both Pritzker and Tusk said, for now, the U.S. government may not be able to muster the political will to solve the hard questions over training and immigration. Instead, they said the best chance for reform may come from state and local politicians.