Former Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker: How to Create the Workforce of the Future

September 25, 2018, 10:11 PM UTC

There will be work for Americans in the future despite doom and gloom about automation and artificial intelligence—we just aren’t totally prepared for what that work will look like, according former Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker.

“I’m a big believer—there is work in the future,” Pritzker said at Fortune‘s Brainstorm Reinvent conference in Chicago Tuesday afternoon. “We’re not preparing our workforce for that.”

Pritzker, a longtime business executive before joining the Obama administration in 2013, is now chairman of the investment group PSP Partners. Earlier this year, she chaired a Council on Foreign Relations report, The Work Ahead, about the workforce of the coming decades. The study identifies economic security as a national security issue.

“If we don’t figure out how to help Americans have a pathway to prosperity and we don’t better link education to jobs, our economic security will be impacted, which will affect our national security,” Pritzker said.

Employers need to invest in their employees by encouraging them to learn new skills—and workers need to prepare for lifelong learning. That shift requires the investment of several stakeholders: national and local government leaders, business leaders, and educators.

“The Department of Commerce is not the Department of Education, but we made it a priority,” Pritzker said.

Employers will have to adjust by figuring out how to provide benefits to people working for several companies at once instead of holding one full-time position.

Pritzker said the government can help with those kinds of adjustments for employers, for instance, by offering tax credits to employers who pay for employee training, just as the government currently offers tax credits to employers who invest in new machinery. Immigration policy, too, needs a reevaluation to serve the modern workforce, Pritzker said.

Some companies have gotten a head start on these changes, Pritzker said. AT&T has invested in its existing workforce for some needs instead of looking to new hires, and Aeon and Accenture have introduced apprenticeships to help people learn new skills.

On the government side, former Delaware Gov. Jack Markell supported community college access for high school students, and current Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper updated state laws to make it easier for students to access courses to gain certificates, Pritzker said.

“Our system is not prepared for the way work is changing and we need to change our systems,” Pritzker said.

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