A conversation with workforce expert Jeff Wald

Apr 29 2021

XPRIZE Rapid Reskilling Advisory Board member, Jeff Wald, tells us why he started is own prize for people who can best predict the future of work. 

Image credit: Deloitte US 

How do we equip under-resourced Americans to better find employment? How do we help the job market recover after COVID-19? And how do we create training programs to reskill workers amidst an AI revolution? 

These are just some of the important questions that led us to launch the $5M XPRIZE Rapid Reskilling, a 30-month competition that will catalyze technologies that quickly reskill under-resourced workers for the digital revolution. To amplify the competition, we consulted thought leaders in the field of workforce empowerment, labor markets, and tech, who together make up our incredible Advisory Board

Jeff Wald is one member of the board, as well as, the founder of Work Market, an enterprise software platform that enables companies to manage freelancers (acquired by ADP). He is an active angel investor and startup advisor and serves on numerous public and private boards of directors. Jeff is an expert in the future of work and is the author of the Amazon Best Selling book The End of Jobs: The Rise of On-Demand Workers and Agile Corporations. Within the book, Jeff invites 20 industry leaders – from start-ups to staffing firms to unions – to offer their predictions on the future of work. “As I was gathering these amazing people and asking them to contribute I was inspired by the XPRIZE to add some incentive,” he explains, “so I have put forward a $10 million prize for whichever of the writers in the book is the most accurate in their vision when we get to 2040.” 

Below, we talked to Jeff further about his book, the Future of Work Prize, and XPRIZE Rapid Reskilling. 

To start with, when and why did you decide to write The End of Jobs: The Rise of On-Demand Workers and Agile Corporations?

I decided to write this book almost eight years ago, because of frustration. When going to conferences and different thought-leader events, I would get very frustrated by people that made predictions about the future of work that didn't look at history or data, and didn't think about how companies actually engage workers. The biggest prediction was the idea that 50% of the labor force was going to be on-demand by 2020. That was the overarching prediction in 2010. At the time, the on-demand labor force was about 25% of the workforce. Over the next 10 years, the labor force did not double from 25% to 50% but continued its very slow, very steady growth, which is what anybody that really studied the on-demand labor force would have concluded. We've hit 2020 and the on-demand labor force is maybe 28% of the workforce, but again what everyone's predicting for 2030 is 50%. 

So I wanted to give people a framework for thinking about these things more intelligently, to use their critical thinking to look at history, look at data, to think about how companies actually engage workers. In the end, it went from being solely focused on the on-demand labor force to a book about the entire future of work. Because the same can be said about robots and AI. The headlines say 50% of the labor force is going to be lost to robots and AI. That is incredibly unlikely. But we need to be very thoughtful when we make these predictions because workers, families, communities, companies, and societies are starting to plan and think about how they allocate their time and their resources. We owe it to them to be responsible and thoughtful when making predictions that they may use as they plan their futures.

 For someone who is not a specialist in this area, what do we mean when we say “on-demand”?

On-demand labor is people that work for you, but are not employed by you. So you can turn them on and turn them off. In the US, that's temps and freelancers. In other countries, they go under the same moniker sometimes but have different legal classifications. Some people call it the gig-economy. 

 In the book, 20 contributors offer their predictions on the future of work, and you’ve created an incentive prize to award the most accurate prediction – can you tell us more about it? 

Well, I just wanted to copy you guys! I remember reading about the first XPRIZE and I thought, ‘that is brilliant’. That is exactly how we drive innovation. In a capitalist system, we say, here's the prize, go towards it, and people will come up with ways and do things that we never thought about. I was asking all of these wonderful people that are shaping the future of work but are super busy, so I thought, how do I make this interesting to them? And then I remembered XPRIZE and I thought, I will do the same. I put enough money into an account that by 2040 it will be $10M and I look forward to awarding that prize to one of these wonderful writers whose prediction feels most true. I do have an outsized vote in the prize, but they all get a vote too and their vote has to be for somebody other than themselves. 

 What were some of the predictions that surprised you most? 

The submissions were very wide-ranging. We had some that were very dystopian – what they thought the world was going to look like in 2040 was a world of economic concentration, it was a world of social dislocation and disruption. Then we had other people – equally experts in their field – predicting a utopian future for the average worker, a future free from want, a future where a lot of repetitive high volume processes, a lot of mundane tasks, are done by robots and AI so that humanity can focus more on leisure and art and science and community. Then I had one person that basically wrote that everything's going to be about the same. That was actually my favorite. It basically said: “Look, we're going to have some changes on the margin here, some changes on the margin there. But for the most part, no new regulations, no new laws, and work will mostly continue the way it’s happened for the last few 100 years.” 

Where do you think you sit on the spectrum?

History, data, and trends would teach us that work moves in a very slow and steady way – there is never a new technology that suddenly exists, and therefore all these jobs go. There will be an incremental change in a host of ways and those incremental changes will feed upon each other. There are very few times in history when you see labor curves really suddenly change unless an anomalous event happens. But even then, usually, things revert to the mean, right? Think about the pandemic, and how quickly we saw unemployment spike, and then how quickly we saw it come back down. And so that is not to say that we're nearly out of this. It's not to say that there aren’t a lot of substantive changes that have happened to the labor market, but they will impact millions of workers, not tens of millions or hundreds of millions. 

We do see periods in history when perhaps things speed up or accelerate – industrial revolutions, where change is a bit more noticeable. We are now in what’s sometimes called “the fourth industrial revolution” driven by AI. Even if nothing too sudden is going to happen, are there things we can do to safeguard against this revolution?

Definitely. Just because we aren't going to see tens of millions of people displaced next year doesn't mean that we might not see a million or two million people displaced. And that's a lot of people, right? Just as if a factory in a town closed, it might not have much impact on a macro scale, but for local communities and families, things look very different. And over time, we are talking about maybe actually 15 to 20 million jobs within the United States that will be displaced by automation over the next 20 years. That is a tremendous number of jobs. When we look at the past three industrial revolutions, 10 to 15% of jobs get displaced over these periods, and they are relatively long – 50 to 75 years. This time, it'll be 20 years. 10 to 15% over 20 years is a huge amount of labor force that needs to be retrained quickly. Historically, societies have done a terrible job of doing this retraining. And when they don't do this retraining, we see those workers that have displaced become very disaffected, and you see a lot of societal dislocation because we are not doing the things that are necessary to help those workers move from one job to the next… which is possible because more jobs are always created. 

So, how do we do it differently this time? What kind of technologies and what kind of processes and institutions can we put in place to ensure that as your job function or industry or company maybe gets displaced, society is helping you to reskill or to upskill, to move to other jobs in the industries, the functions, the geographies that are growing? I'm very hopeful that we will do a better job this time, and I'm all the more hopeful because of the XPRIZE Rapid Reskilling program that will be able to bring a lot of light to what is going on in terms of new technologies, new institutions, new processes... so that these things become a bigger part of our collective conversation.

Do you think there's anything that we can be really excited about in terms of these shifts? 

There are a few things that we have every right to be very excited about, according to what history tells us. The first is, all the industrial revolutions in the past always eventually ended with more jobs, a higher standard of living, and people working fewer hours. Those are very clear, almost uninterrupted trends throughout the last 200 years. That's a wonderful future. Is it a utopian future where robots and AI are doing all of our mundane tasks, and we can focus on leisure and science… not necessarily in the next 20 years but is that where we're heading? Unquestionably. When you think about that utopian future, and more of those mundane tasks being done by a robot by an AI system, it frees us up, whether it frees us up to do higher value-added tasks at work or higher value-added tasks in our lives. We're at a much better spot as a society. But we need to do this right, in order to make that transition as smooth as possible. 


That brings us to your role on the Advisory Board for XPRIZE Rapid Reskilling – what do you hope comes out of the competition?

I would say that when we think about societal challenges in regards to robots and AI, my concern as somebody that has studied this is not about the robots taking jobs. My concern is how do we help workers in those industries or jobs or functions that will be automated away? How do we help them move to the jobs, the industries, the functions that are growing? To me, this is one of the biggest challenges we face as a society. So I jumped at the chance to work with the different companies and nonprofits who work with XPRIZE on this project, because this is vitally, vitally important for societal stability, and for ensuring that all the benefits of the fourth industrial revolution reach as much of society as humanly possible. There is no bigger challenge in the world of work than how we do this reskilling. Historically we have not done it well, so I'm super excited to see how new technologies, new processes, new institutions can help us do this better.

Right now, the XPRIZE Rapid Reskilling Qualified Teams solutions are being tested in six job centers across America. Find out more in our Meet The Cities blog series.