The Future of Work Keynote

It is undeniable that work, and the needs of work are changing. The middle class has been in decline as manufacturing jobs were offshored. And, as more and more people are working remotely, they are leaving major metropolitan areas for new places to live. For these reasons, the Future of Work keynote address by Dr. Ross DeVol and discussion with Dr. DeVol and Kathryn Kelley was a vital addition and appropriate end to the C2ER and LMI Institute conference in Columbus, Ohio. Dr. Ross DeVol is President and CEO of Heartland Forward. Kathryn Kelley is the Executive Director of the Ohio Manufacturing Institute at The Ohio State University.  

Dr. DeVol’s presentation highlighted the significance of workforce development, talent creation and retention, and the growing importance of entrepreneurship, all with a special focus on America’s heartland. The ongoing pandemic has highlighted the need for reshoring manufacturing. The vulnerability of long supply chains has revealed not only an economic threat, but a national security threat as well. Dr. DeVol stressed the need for incentives to encourage manufacturing firms to relocate back to the United States. One incentive emphasized was the United States’ capacity for workforce development, which he said contributed to Intel’s recent decision to build a $20 billion chip plant in Ohio. In the discussion panel, Kelley spoke about how this plant would create a whole network of jobs around the it, both with the plant itself and the supply chain needed to support it. 

Increased development and nurturing of firms in the U.S. is another critical aspect necessary to drive the future of work forward. The percentage of people employed by firms less than five years old has been declining. Encouraging entrepreneurs can pay dividends in the long run as small local firms are unlikely to offshore, in comparison to larger firms invited in. Another metric to follow is what universities are being cited most in new patents filed by firms. Schools allowing access to their intellectual property can have a huge effect on the local economy and the businesses in the surrounding area. 

The middle class is in decline, and, beyond reshoring, a way to help bring it back is focusing on ‘opportunity occupations,’ which Dr. DeVol defines as growing fields that pay at least three times poverty wage and do not require a four-year degree. This issue was brought back up in the discussion panel after the presentation. Dr. DeVol reemphasized that a cultural reevaluation of these opportunities and trades must be conducted. This process can start as easily as swapping out the term ‘vocational education’ for ‘career pathways.’  

The final topic addressed was how remote work will be impactful across various sectors going forward. Before the pandemic, about 5% of the workforce was remote. However, as the economy settles out, about 20-25% of the workforce is full time remote, with another 15% hybrid. This shift indicates that people in the workforce have enormous freedom over where they live and putting an increased motivation on providing high-speed internet for towns and encouraging the growth of their social capital. Quality of life and local amenities continue to play a bigger role in attracting new residents.   

Both speakers agreed that the future of work, and thus the economy, is uncertain. But, with proper focus and development, communities can achieve their growth goals and improve the economic prospects of the heartland.