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Springfield, MO

Opinion: Labor force in need of lifelong learners

Industry Insight

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In the post-crisis global economy, one troubling trend is the documented slowdown in productivity growth.

Positive signs are appearing with new trends in automation, artificial intelligence and the adoption of training on these new technologies. This may lead to higher productivity and indeed could foster a boom in the coming years, but the jury is still out.

As such, educating the workforce with technology management skills and embracing lifelong learning will be paramount.

Know the workforce
Why is labor force productivity so important to the global economy? It is the notion that doing more with the same or less inputs creates new wealth and prosperity. This is true across all economies – though politics, bad policies and weak rule of law can skew any wealth gained away from labor.

In the developed world, a view of shared prosperity has been a driver of increasing quality of life since the Industrial Revolution, because business and government leaders invested in education, training and adaptive thinking.

In the Ozarks, we are enjoying a period of sustained growth, low unemployment and a more positive economic outlook. However, risks remain. Recently, Charles Gascon, a research economist from the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank, reminded a Springfield audience that workforce productivity in the Ozarks lags other metropolitan areas in Missouri and some similar communities nationally. This is not to say that local employees do not work hard: We know our work ethic is strong. What we have, then, is an opportunity to change the data for the better.

Two approaches
How do we do this? First, increased use of technology management skills. In the 1970s and 1980s, a favorite quip by economists was that computer technology was everywhere, except in the productivity statistics. However, by the period between 1990 and 2007, U.S. productivity grew nearly 2.5 percent per year. This was nearly double the rate in the earlier period, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In an age of automation the only way for labor to thrive is to embrace lifelong learning. CEOs who fund their companies’ talent development are truly paying it forward.

Second, workforce cultures, especially with regard to leadership, need revamping. The productivity challenge of stagnant firms isn’t because of unavailable innovations. The gap occurs when firms fail to adopt new management methods, new digital processes and ever-evolving best practices.

Leadership culture is changing in favor of transparency, influence (rather than command) and tension-tolerant collaboration. This will likely require sizeable investments in continuous worker re-training, and in empathic leaders who create operable vision from imagination.

We often take for granted conveniences like modern houses, abundant food, advanced medicine and ubiquitous information. Yet, these contemporary comforts did not happen by accident. They emerged organically as the consequences of continuous investments in K-12, college and post-graduate workforce education, not to mention a spirit of invention. Now, as less complex work becomes increasingly automated, the time it takes for worker skills to become irrelevant will diminish.

The Springfield region can compete in this higher tech future. But we don’t have a moment to waste.

Jeffrey Schmedeke is assistant director of the Management Development Institute at Missouri State University. He can be reached at jeffschmedeke@missouristate.edu.

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