Business & Tech

To keep up with automation, train workers from early age, panelists say

Computers will keep getting smarter. And so must US workers, if they want to hang onto their jobs.

That was the consensus of politicians, academics, and entrepreneurs who discussed the disruptive effects of technology at two panel discussions sponsored by the Boston Globe Friday afternoon.

Although the panelists stressed that better education will help ensure that US workers don’t lose out to computers and robots, Northeastern University president Joseph Aoun warned that today’s colleges aren’t prepared to deliver the kind of training workers will need.


“If higher education cannot be disrupted or cannot disrupt itself, it’s going to be obsolete,” Aoun said.

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Better technical education is not enough, Aoun argued. Northeastern uses cooperative training programs to embed students in real-world businesses where they can learn relationship skills to complement technical training. The university also operates satellite campuses in Silicon Valley, Seattle, Charlotte, and Toronto. “Higher education has to go to where the learner is, and not only online,” Aoun said.

Anant Agarwal, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and founder of the online education service edX, said traditional college programs are useless for millions of workers who need to upgrade their skills. “We have a planet-scale reskilling effort on our hands,” Agarwal said. “The only way to do that is really online education.”

Agarwal talked about edX’s MicroMasters program, a series of online courses that feature graduate-level training in specialized technical fields. These let workers upgrade their skills quickly, at about $1,000 per course, and can be counted as credit toward full-fledged graduate degrees.

Niraj Shah, chief executive of online retailer Wayfair, said that his company seeks workers with solid technical backgrounds, then trains them in specialties his company needs, such as data science. “You want to be able to get folks who have the foundational skills they need, and then learn the nuances of our business,” said Shah.


His company hosted the discussions at its Back Bay headquarters. The event was held in conjunction with the annual meeting of the United States Conference of Mayors in Boston, and Globe columnist Shirley Leung and political reporter Matt Viser each moderated a panel.

Mayor Yvonne Spicer of Framingham argued that the hard work of education should begin at the beginning, from kindergarten up. “Kids have to understand what is out there for them in the world of work,” Spicer said.

The Trump administration’s rollback of “net neutrality” regulations came under particular criticism during the second panel, which focused on the effect of disruptive technologies on public policy. US Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts warned that the lack of protections could encourage big Internet service providers to throttle access to competing online services. “This really goes to the heart of this job-creation engine which is the Internet,” Markey said.

And Mayor Jenny Durkan of Seattle worried that Internet providers could limit public access to information and ideas that might threaten their financial interests. “Pretty soon you start limiting the way you can have freedom of expression,” she said.

Harvard Law School professor Susan Crawford said the Trump administration hasn’t slashed science and technology funding as much as she feared, but added, “There really isn’t anybody in the West Wing who is qualified to give advice on science and technology policy. Unless we have that, it’s hard to see that the United States is going to make a lot of progress.”

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at