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Automation, job loss fears speed workforce training in Mass.

A new report from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts offers a snapshot of what states are facing post-pandemic: increasing automation and a need for workforce training.

The pandemic is accelerating automation and threatening jobs, according to Massachusetts state officials. In response, the state is making plans to expand workforce training to keep up with the shift.

But that's not officials' only concern. In September, supplemental federal unemployment benefits will cease in Massachusetts and another 26 states that decided not to end the federal benefit early.

"We've got over 330,000 people falling off unemployment on September 4," said Rosalin Acosta, secretary of Labor and Workforce Development for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. "And if you ask me what keeps me up at night, it's that."

More than half of those receiving state unemployment only have a high school degree or less, she said, adding that some recipients are English language learners. State officials said they would work to help them get new skills and jobs.

"We need those folks engaged in the workforce immediately," Acosta said. Her comments were made at a press conference this week detailing the state's workforce training needs as outlined in a new report titled "Preparing for the Future of Work in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts."

The need to reskill the workforce will only become more critical. Over the next decade, Massachusetts officials warned that automation will have a major impact on employment and create new demand for workforce training.

Acosta said that in the next 10 years, "300,000 to 400,000 current jobs in the Commonwealth will disappear." She said this is "a result of accelerated adoption, automation and AI due to the pandemic."

The Massachusetts report is just a snapshot of a national problem around automation that's getting recognized at the federal level. The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, approved earlier this year, included funds for states to deal with the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. Massachusetts received $2.9 billion as its share. About $240 million will go toward workforce training.

Workforce training urgency

Automation's impact "isn't some distant academic question that will need to be solved by future generations," Acosta said. Automation will affect workers in customer service, food services, office support, production work and other occupations, according to the state's report.

Automation's impact isn't some distant academic question that will need to be solved by future generations.
Rosalin AcostaSecretary of Labor and Workforce Development, Commonwealth of Massachusetts

Keeping up with the increasing reliance on automation will mean workforce training for 30,000 to 40,000 people in the state annually, she said.

More immediately is the end of federal supplemental workforce benefits of $300 a week. About 4 million people nationally will be affected by the ending of these benefits, said Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, an independent policy research group in New York. Stettner has researched the unemployment insurance program.

"It's going to be a cliff, because there will still be probably several hundred thousand workers in Massachusetts who have not found a job by then," he said.

More than two dozen states chose to end the supplemental benefits early, describing it as an incentive for residents to find and take jobs.

But the labor market recovery in those states that cut the federal benefits early "seems to be generally about the same pace as states such as Massachusetts that haven't cut off the benefits," Stettner said. "It didn't seem to be the thing that turned the economy around."

Some workers will continue to get state unemployment benefits past the September cutoff date, "but probably not for too much longer" because of the limits on state assistance, Stettner said.

The growing push to reskill workers may be a good thing for HR employees. The state's study forecasted growth for recruiters, HR analysts, coordinators and generalists, and many business roles in finance and operations.

Patrick Thibodeau covers HCM and ERP technologies. He's worked for more than two decades as an enterprise IT reporter.

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