Task force urges Washington state leaders to prepare for tech-driven workforce changes

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Gov. Jay Inslee speaks to a crowd of tech leaders before the 2018 GeekWire Gala. (GeekWire Photo / Dan DeLong)

A task force of legislators, and business and labor leaders, is urging Washington state’s government to do more to prepare for the future of work.

The group has released a 113-page report detailing how technology could change the nature of work and what the state Legislature can do to prepare for it. Nova Gattman, deputy director for external affairs at Washington’s Workforce Board, is headed to Washington, D.C., this week to testify on the future of work before the U.S. House of Representatives.

“While impeachment will be the hot topic of the day in the House, this topic is likely more important to workers and businesses than anything else,” said Lewis McMurran, co-manager of the task force.

The task force identified five areas to prioritize and 17 specific policy recommendations within those areas. Recommendations include $25 million for worker training; exploring artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies that the state government could adopt; education funding; expanding worker benefits programs; and improving rural broadband access.

“The Task Force examined some of the state’s most pressing current issues, and committed to developing meaningful policy recommendations to prepare all Washingtonians, regardless of zip code, for what lies ahead, and leave no one behind in an increasingly high-skill, high-tech economy,” the report says.

The task force was created in 2018 through legislation. The business leaders on the team — including two Microsoft employees — and labor representatives, didn’t always agree, according to the report. But they did find common ground on basic priorities, like improving diversity, training workers for the jobs of tomorrow, and improving the labor market data the state collects to better identify trends and needs.

One topic the task force zeroed in on was “job quality.”

“From the idea of livable wages and benefits to the notion of how scheduling algorithms can cause disruption to workers, job quality covers many different issues,” the report says. “The Task Force addressed several of these issues in its policy recommendations around competency-based credentialing, modernizing the worker support system, and increasing support for worker training and upskilling.”

While unemployment in the U.S. is at a record low, many workers are now earning their living through gig economy services, like Uber, and freelance or contingent work.

“If the nature of the worker-employer relationship continues to evolve from a formal, long-term arrangement to a more hybrid scenario that includes an expectation of greater employee mobility and job churn, the subject of job quality could very likely remain a pivotal, and potentially contentious, issue,” the report says.

The task force hopes the state legislature will consider the recommended policies, though McMurran acknowledges that may not happen in the upcoming short session.

“Like a lot of task forces and reports, we are fighting for mind share among many other issues and constituencies,” he said.

McMurran expects some of the more ambitious recommendations to be taken up in the 2021 budget session.

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