I love storytelling. For me, the most exciting part of what I do is when I am learning everything I can about a new topic. Each time I begin to produce something new, it’s like going back to school, diving straight in, and trying my best to become an “expert” on a new subject. I could be telling a story about a new video game or about how to bring water to farmers in Africa. There are always interesting characters and unique problems. It’s different and exciting every time, and I have learned over the last ten years that I can become passionate about anything.
And while I think my skills for telling other people’s story have gotten pretty good over the years, this story is different, this story is part of my own.
I did not study economics in high school or college. In fact, I barely graduated the 12th grade (a story for another time), so it should come as no surprise that the words “structural unemployment” were completely foreign to me the first time I heard them — when I met Art Bilger. In fact, that whole initial meeting could have been in another language because there was so much Art was saying that I just did not understand. For a guy who was, at the time, basically unsearchable on the internet, he knew so much about so much – it’s no wonder some of the folks we work with today refer to him as “the world’s most interesting man.”
I met Art through Joan Lynch, my former boss from my days working at ESPN a decade ago. Joan is now my producing partner at WorkingNation. She and I had been looking for an opportunity to work together for a few years, so when Art approached her about telling the structural unemployment story, I was her first phone call. And when she pitched me the project, I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about. But Joan convinced me that it would be worth my time.
Over the first two days I spent with Art and several others who would become some of my most trusted confidantes at WorkingNation, I was put through a rigorous bootcamp-style class on macro- and micro-economics. I won’t bore you with the details, mostly out of embarrassment for just how little I knew. At the end of this two-day crash course, I had taken charts and graphs and whittled them down to the one point I absolutely had become sure of: We, the United States, are about to face a massive jobs crisis.
At the time, I kept asking myself, why am I the right person to tell this story? It’s all about numbers, tables and diagrams — none of which I could decipher. I felt completely overwhelmed and terrified. Everyone around me knew more than I did, they had been studying these concepts for decades. And while I may not be an economist or a numbers person, I am a storyteller. And I could see there was a powerful story that needed to be told through the lens of those facing the consequences of structural unemployment. It became clear to Joan and me, as we heard pitch after pitch, and met with the likes of Peter Guber, Ai-jen Poo and Sebastian Junger, that this structural unemployment story deeply touches everyone in our lives — our families, friends, and neighbors. The rate at which technology and automation are replacing humans in our current workforce is terrifying. Out of this realization came one of the first projects we produced, a short film called Slope of the Curve, directed by Marshall Curry and voiced by Anthony Anderson.
This film’s job is to explain to other “regular” people, people living in fear, who perhaps, like me, don’t read the Wall Street Journal every morning, what this problem is, that it has a name, and that it will affect all of us. I challenge you to watch the film and see if you still think the same way about the future of work.
Through this process I realized that to get people to pay attention to what’s ahead, it doesn’t matter whether or not I know how to define concepts like the Laffer Curve. I can find plenty of experts to talk about things like that. But the people who are hurting, like the factory workers in Indianapolis who have done everything right and still are getting squeezed out of their jobs, need hope. They need a vision that at the end of the long, uneasy road, there is light.
Through telling their stories, I saw our opportunity – to make a difference and give them a chance to be heard. I didn’t need to become an economist, I needed to find a way to tell the story of this jobs crisis so that the hardworking people in cities like Indianapolis, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh could figure out what to do next.
It would be easy for me to say that this issue pertains just to employees at the bottom of the workforce, but it doesn’t. The problem reaches all the way to the top; employers need to start charting new pathways as well. Right now, there are workers and there are jobs, but they don’t match. The more research we reviewed, the more we realized there was a growing mismatch between the skills that people have and the skills that existing jobs require, otherwise known as the “the skills-gap.” Art, Joan and I, and the rest of the WorkingNation team, decided it was our responsibility to become a mouthpiece for this gap, and we have spent countless hours identifying how we could be part of the solution to bridge it.
Throughout 2016, we realized that the most helpful thing we could do was raise awareness and tell people that this is real, this is happening. Our goal was to teach them about what’s to come and encourage them to get prepared. We worked to get leaders and stakeholders to come to the table and speak candidly with each other about what the problems are and how they can collaborate on a solution. I learned a crazy statistic that year:
According to a 2014 study by the online newspaper Inside Higher Ed, 96 percent of chief academic officers felt that their educators were doing a good job – although they may have been grading on a curve. Two years later, a 2016 Gallup survey found that 14 percent of Americans and only 11 percent of business leaders strongly agreed that graduates possess the necessary skills and competencies to succeed in the workplace.
So now, in 2017, our expanded mission is a response to that striking shift in confidence. We are now dedicating ourselves to telling the stories of those that are doing remarkable work to build innovative, meaningful programs that actively try to solve our nation’s jobs problem. We are creating content that speaks specifically to this idea of bringing people together to talk about and form solutions. We are learning there already is an abundance of grassroots efforts seeking to address the skills gap occurring across the country. People are working tirelessly to bring the worker and the employer together. People who no one knows about, people like Henry Rock, a 2015 Encore.Org Purpose Prize fellow who, in his “encore” stage of life went on to create City StartUp Labs. People like Henry are doing God’s work. Their stories are the stories that need to be told, because they are the people who will solve this problem.
I think today, while perhaps I know a bit more about the speed at which technology is moving, I am certain that the time we are living in is much different than the last industrial revolution. It’s amazing that more people than ever will live to be older than 100, but our economic structure isn’t built to sustain them. Above all else, what I really have learned through our work at WorkingNation is that we are all in this together. We will fail together or we will succeed together. I have never felt the phrase “It takes a village” to be more timely.
It has taken me months – if not years – to confidently grasp the concept of structural unemployment and the impact it has made on me has most certainly changed my life. On the surface, this story might seem like it’s about dry, boring numbers, but I know now that it’s not. It is about finding solutions to this challenge we all face by telling narratives that connect workers, employers, industry leaders and the higher education systems.
We must tell the stories of people who are affecting change. By sharing their examples, I believe, we will inspire faith in humanity. If we can do this, and bring the right people together, we can fulfill our mission to change the fate of the workforce. And now my story is part of their story.