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Alliance launches effort to ‘future proof’ Philadelphia’s economy

By Ayana Jones – Philadelphia Tribune Staff Writer (Originally posted on

A coalition of leaders is developing a comprehensive strategy to address threats to the local economy caused by the current worldwide shift to automation.

The Future Works Alliance PHL was founded by Anne Gemmell, former director of special initiatives in the Philadelphia Office of Workforce Development.

She said the alliance is seeking to “future proof” the Greater Philadelphia region’s economy.

“Future proofing means that you have the systems and the infrastructure in place to adapt rapidly to change,” Gemmell said.

The alliance’s collaborative effort aims to narrow the racial wealth gap and promote gender equity in the workplace by taking an active role now to help shape the ecosystem, planning and talent development dialogue. They also seek to fill a void formed when the city eliminated its workforce development office earlier this year as part of budget cuts caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“For several years I’ve recognized that policy makers and public sector leaders weren’t as well informed about technological change as they may need to be and we need to close the knowledge gaps around technology that was being used in the private sector,” Gemmell said.

Prior to the pandemic, she consulted with experts who projected it would take about 10 years for companies to adopt new technological tools in their operations.

“But then the pandemic hit and all those same experts that was I was consulting with said the time line has been accelerated rapidly, and for multiple reasons now we have a much shorter timeline to get ready for continuous and major disruptions in the economy as companies adopt artificial intelligence tools and adopt automation,” Gemmell said.

“This urgency around the pandemic has created a bigger opportunity for more innovation to just be snapped into place.”

The alliance’s focus comes as research by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia found that the pandemic hit jobs held by minorities particularly hard because of their concentration in service jobs at risk for automation. The study said jobs most at risk of being replaced by machines include hotel desk clerks, shuttle drivers, retail salespersons, parking attendants, slaughterhouse workers and toll collectors.

Conservative estimates suggest approximately 167,000 jobs in the Philadelphia region are vulnerable to the combined forces of the pandemic and automation.

“The projections around the future of work have been to date that if we still do everything the same way like we’ve always been doing, inequality will widen, racial wealth gaps will widen, gender gaps in the technology world and STEM professions will widen,” Gemmell said.

“We cannot keep doing things the way we’ve been doing them and expect different results.”

The alliance of business, civic, education and public sector leaders has formed four working groups in the areas of innovation, talent, education and environment to craft a future-proofing blueprint. They are evaluating case studies on other countries’ strategies for future proofing and are gathering information from citizens and thought leaders across industries to inform the equitable creation of a playbook for workforce resiliency.

The alliance’s board consists of Gemmell and 13 leaders including Tracey Welson Rossman, chief marketing officer of Chariot Solutions and founder of the TechGirlz Foundation; Chad Womack, senior director of STEM programs and initiatives at the United Negro College Fund; Robert Campanile, managing director of Accenture; and Sheila Ireland, deputy secretary of workforce development in the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry.

Ireland addressed how the alliance ties into her work in the Department of Labor and Industry.

She said they must be able to understand how the systems that have been put in place to prepare people to take advantage of job opportunities are evolving.

Ireland said the pandemic led to the disappearance of non-cognitive roles in retail and hospitality sectors — jobs often held by women and people of color.

“What frightens me about it, it’s not just that these jobs are disappearing but also the disparate impact on vulnerable communities,” she said.

“In my role as deputy secretary of workforce, what we are looking at is how do we shift the workforce industry from preparing people to be cashiers and how to move them into what we know are jobs of the future.”

She said automation is embedded in everything that people do.

“It used to be the days there was work available where you didn’t need a computer. Now you can’t even be a parking attendant if you’re not digitally literate,” Ireland said.

She cited an Urban Institute study that estimated 67% of people are digitally illiterate and lack foundational literacy skills.

She said some organizations are utilizing technology and moving away from using expensive human capital.

“The reality is businesses who are adopting technology are doing it for the profit motive,” Ireland said.

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