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Vice President Joe Biden, Official White House Photo by David Lienemann, 2013
Economic transformations due to rapid advances in technology have created not only significant anxiety but also a legitimate debate about whether there will be sufficient jobs to sustain a vibrant middle class.
Some argue that these changes won't lead to significant net job loss, so we need not worry. Others argue the risks are so great we should close up our borders to minimize the damage. One idea that has gained prominence, particularly among leaders in Silicon Valley, is universal basic income. The theory is that automation will result in so many lost jobs that the only plausible answer is some type of guaranteed government check with no strings attached.
I believe there is a better way forward. I believe we can – we must – build a future that puts work first. My father used to have an expression. He'd say, "Joey, a job is about a lot more than a paycheck. It's about your dignity. It's about your self-respect. It's about your place in your community." And every coal worker in West Virginia or steelworker in Scranton who lost their job will tell you they didn't just lose a paycheck but much more.
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Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Transportation, Anthony Foxx, tour the port of Charleston, SC, Feb. 18, 2015
While I appreciate concerns from Silicon Valley executives about what their innovations may do to American incomes, I believe they're selling American workers short. The future will not change the enduring American values that got us here. Our children and grandchildren deserve the promise we've had: the skills to get ahead, the chance to earn a paycheck, and a steady job that rewards hard work.
And here's one thing I know for sure: it is within our power to provide the future they deserve. When the steam engine came along or the Model T Ford hit the assembly line or the first computer, we didn't throw up our hands. We made choices to make it work for us. And now, too, our future is a choice, not a foregone conclusion.
All of us – corporate America, labor, nonprofits, and government – have a responsibility to get this right. I know some want to single out big corporations for all the blame. It is true that the balance has shifted too much in favor of corporations and against workers. But consumers, workers, and leaders have the power to hold every corporation to a higher standard, not simply cast business as the enemy or let industry off the hook. Last spring, I brought some leading executives to the University of Delaware to discuss these challenges and how CEOs can meet their responsibilities to their workers, their communities, and their country.
Now, I am launching a new effort at the Biden Institute at the University of Delaware to identify strategies for economic growth that put work first. Tomorrow morning, I am speaking in Washington to CEOs from around the country about our shared responsibility to solve this problem. Then, I am returning to Delaware to lead a panel discussion with national leaders in business, labor, non-profits, and government. Many are already doing great work on this issue. My goal is to learn from their successes and find common ground to help leverage and scale them.
Biden Institute, University of Delaware
Our effort will look at key policy changes needed for our workers to succeed. First, the Biden Institute will examine ways to transform our education system to be early, lifelong, affordable, and accessible. Cognitive capacity – as opposed to brawn – continues to become a surer path to climb that ladder into the middle class. Too often I hear people talking about how the jobs of the future require skills that our workers cannot attain. That's simply not the case. Today, workers in manufacturing plants already rely on complex computer systems. As I learned a long time ago, it is never a good idea to bet against the American people.
So, don't tell me what our people can't do. Let's instead figure out how we're going to train them for the jobs of the future. And retrain them. Because in today's economy, given the pace of technological change, there is a need for workers to retool or retrain even to keep up with the jobs they already have. At a minimum, that means recognizing that 12 years of school is no longer enough; two years of free community college should be available as well to meet the needs of today's jobs.
The Biden Institute will also look for strategies to help communities that disproportionately shoulder the burden of the transformations. And finally, it will explore how to make sure key workplace benefits and protections – access to health insurance, retirement security, and a work environment that is safe from discrimination – persist in an economy where the nature of work has changed.
All of us together can make choices to shape a better future. Our workers, our businesses, our communities, and our nation deserves nothing less.