A "Post Jobs" XPRIZE?

Hi All, I don’t want to sound like a broken record. But discussions here really are focusing on the “J” word (Jobs). Is there room to consider other scenarios? Here’s some thoughts……

The Other Perspective

I know we would like to see everyone with low-skills back in secure employment. But it may be a tragic reality that the pandemic will further accelerate an unstoppable trend towards low-skill breadwinners having to piece together earnings from diverse, precarious, sources of employment.

Unfortunately, it may be that no amount of training will stop this: it’s a demand-side issue, not a shortage of qualified supply.

Even if quality jobs were coming back for this workforce, it will take time for traditional employment to rebound from the slump. Businesses will likely hire incrementally, relying on on-demand workers for as long as possible.

I urge you to acknowledge this in prize design. It’s no longer an issue of whether we like “gig work” or not. Already 35% of the US workforce are at least partially reliant on it and that looks set to rocket in coming months.

Any XPRIZE focused on improving control, stability, progression and protections for the irregular workforce could impact profoundly and quickly. The impact could last far beyond training thousands of people for jobs that as Matthew says (above) may not be there a year later.

The Infrastructure Issues

As some of you know, I ran the British government programs [Beyond) Jobs](http://www.beyondjobs.com%22%5DBeyond to raise standards, alignment and prospects for this workforce. Long story short: sustainably, scalably, tackling their many problems requires new “connective tissue” between those who hire this labor and people who provide it.

Every other issue - how to build responsive life-long learning, stopping exploitation, attracting activity out of shadow economies, misclassification, low-pay, lack of benefits, limiting the growth of “gig work” – is subsidiary to the point above.

If the infrastructure that aligns buyers of labor and the providers is controlling, commoditizing, secretive, maximizing profit extraction and frequently unstable, there’s little point taking other measures to help people. Currently the infrastructure is all of these things.

How is the infrastructure unstable? Ask anyone who was cleaning houses through Homejoy, or working through thousands of other for-profit labor markets that went bust and vanished overnight.

Working through a successful market isn’t a whole lot better. You’ve probably read reports about Uber misleading work-seekers, slashing pay, distorting the market against workers, withholding data, and systematically misleading regulators?

Some people think Uber’s a one off. But this is the most highly valued private company ever. They’re a pathfinder for all sorts of start-ups operating short-term labor markets. Less visibly, companies like Kronos allow corporates to schedule and control their huge workforces with all sorts of sophisticated new tools.

Why This Matters

One-sided infrastructure for those in irregular work isn’t a peripheral issue. As low-skill workers have their options limited and pathways to progression cut off, labor gets cheaper and more malleable. So the case for companies creating jobs weakens.

Try telling a corporate Financial Director under pressure from Wall Street why she should take on the liabilities and fixed costs of traditional employment. Multiple companies allow her managers to “tap the app” to get staffing on demand, possibly with an algorithm calculating the lowest legal wages that will staff up their stores/cafes/depots/construction sites/carehomes/hotels today.

We need an alternative to the race to the bottom enforced by current models for fluid labor. That model is compelling for buyers of labor.

This is a huge subject and I don’t want to go on about it if there’s a real emotional attachment to traditional jobs in this group. We may get lucky and the low-skilled will see a return to security, progression and regularity in their work lives. I don’t see any data supporting that view, but it could happen.

If there’s willingness to consider less desirable alternatives then X-PRIZE could really shift the dial for some very hard-pressed people. It could also recognize that about 20% of the workforce can only work irregularly.

These are folk with unpredictable medical problems, family commitments or studying that means they aren’t blessed with 40 hours of availability for work a week. One more “Quality Jobs” program, from XPRIZE, will just marginalize them further.

A Post-Jobs XPRIZE?

Imagine we are heading for a world where very few of the low-skilled will have a full time job. What does the infrastructure for that labor market look like if those people are to be supported, skilled and eligible for targeted interventions to support their progression?

What data must the infrastructure produce to maximize alignment with local needs and opportunities for progression? How does it handle benefits? How can it be locally, accountably, controlled? Where do public services and public assistance interface? How might unions initiate new services cost-effectively for this workforce?

This should just about be do-able. But it has to be attractive to buyers of labor to tempt them into a genuine “public option” sitting alongside the Ubers, Homejoys and Kronos’s out there. What’s going to persuade them to buy in a market that levels the playing field for workers?

This will take more than tech. It involves governments, educators and stakeholders across the labor market. But a prize that said something like: “Create an empowering ready-to-go platform, get buy in from diverse stakeholders including employers (large and small) and a demonstrable route to launch in cities with a combined population of 10m” would galvanize an effort like nothing we’ve never seen before.

Thank you for the post, @Wingham. I agree with you — I think a post-pandemic economy entails more risks for these workers than just a few months ago. Sure, these workers received some provisions from the CARES Act, but is that enough? I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this, by the way - whether or not you think it’s going to help pave the way for the essential infrastructure that you’ve laid out here.

Lately, we’ve been thinking a lot about the entire employment ecosystem. Job training is a major component to this, as are skill assessment and credentialing, placement, career coaching, and, as you rightly mention, robust infrastructure and pipelines for those workers at the bottom. We highly value your feedback and will take your remarks into consideration as we move forward in the design process.

Thanks Jordan. It would be shocking if irregular workers DIDN’T get something under the CARES act. But we should all be delighted they’re included.

For me, the interesting thing about designing this prize is: where could an X-Prize REALLY shift the dial?

I don’t dispute there’s a serious training-for-jobs problem in the US. And training big numbers of people very fast would go someway to addressing that, particularly if it’s a replicable model which would obviously be a priority.


However many people you train as software coders, medical analysts and other likely-to-be-in-demand sectors there will still be a huge percentage of the workforce waiting tables, cleaning, serving in stores, packing, building and caring for seniors/children. Lifting a few hundred thousand individuals out of that world would be epic for them. But that’s not going to make the demand from service industries go away, others will simply end up in those roles. Accepting this reality and looking at ways to give ALL those workers pathways seems an equally valid objective?

The federal government is pumping $billions into job training every year and that’s just been sharply increased. Agencies like workforce boards have some leeway as to how to use it so there’s already well funded innovation around. Even a well funded X-Prize would be just be a drop in the ocean of job training budgets: valuable but not boldly shifting the dial in the way the original Space prize did.

There’s already a history of effective mass training programs at times of emergency. During WW2, Britain trained hundreds of thousands of young men in the latest technology (weaponry) after they were conscripted. In the Vietnam war, the US likewise trained huge numbers in gunnery, field operations, flight dispatch, medical skills, etc. etc. As far as I can see it they did this efficiently. The military may already have cracked what’s needed for rapid, responsive, targeted job training.

The components for mass training broadly exist: online courses, digital badging, assignment of mentors, peer support models, markets for tutors, verifiable exams over the web, etc. Yes, they can be deployed/configured in all sorts of ways. But that experimentation looks set to start happening with the huge budgets flowing into state and local agencies to boost employment post pandemic.

An analogy I hope might be helpful: think of the original X-Prize as a prize for TRANSPORTATION. They could have focused on faster/cleaner/safer cars and that would have been useful, although Detroit and Tokyo were already on the same trail. Instead, they opened a new frontier: regular journeys to SPACE. That’s why it was so impactful I suggest.

So, what’s the new frontier in “Future of Work”? I think it’s around infrastructure for economic activity in an economy that could be changing faster than we realize. And a realization that perhaps this issue shouldn’t be left entirely to the private sector to develop. But others will have other insights.

@Wingham - Thank you for your insight and clear expertise in the area of non-traditional employment. In light of the fact that we are leaning towards a prize that places individuals into traditional jobs, what do you think can be done to leverage the remaining 65% of jobs and connect the needs of traditional employers to a newly skilled workforce?

Hi Heather. I have only passing expertise around getting people into traditional jobs. I honestly wouldn’t presume to comment beyond saying it’s obviously going to be even more uncertain around jobs when the economy starts to pick up.

@Wingham - Regarding your ‘tragic reality’ scenario (and WWII example)…At the risk of bringing up the ‘S’ word (as most solutions and ideas seem to be about shoring up a corporate-directed, Capitalist-based labor system, whether through massive jobs training programs, or expanding the ‘gig’ economy), but the pressing issue of what to do with a huge population of low/no-skilled workers (those without training/education beyond a GED, such as a college degree) may have been addressed already by former Dem candidate Andrew Yang…3 letters…GMI (guaranteed minimum income).

As someone else noted, billions of dollars are spent on new jobs training already (many of which are going away, post SARS CoV-2)…but what are the long-term prospects for these hypothetical jobs? Will training for these (and others not mentioned) they ever be able to keep ‘apace’ with the growing population of low-skilled workers…?

Also: can we safely assume here that a ‘world at war’ (i.e., some level of war preparedness and training) is NOT a viable long-term option for economic stability and opportunity (not to mention world peace, and stuff)…?

Or, do we ‘cut to the chase’ already and talk GMI?

Any takers?

Hi Marz, no problem with UBI/GMI. But none of these solutions remove the need for huge numbers of people waiting tables, working in care homes, building homes, etc.

My interest is what we’re going to do for them. They won’t be automated away. Training a bunch of other people for jobs assumed to be in demand won’t remove that low wage work. Someone has to start looking at how you sustainably move those people on through ladder while giving them control, protections etc.

And I think you misunderstood my point about the military. Definitely not suggesting war is a good thing. Only that when it happens, it shows the military already knows a lot about how to suddenly train a lot of people for emerging jobs. The models they’ve pioneered might well translate to civilian life. I’m sure that’s been studied many times.