The recent boom in artificial intelligence has put Congress on alert about how to prepare and qualify the US workforce for rapidly changing technologies.

The potential uses for AI in industries across the economy means policymakers will have to confront how the new technology will impact the future of work. As experts predict massive disruptions, some in Congress fear automation could take out whole swaths of professions.

AI’s effect on jobs is “really my biggest nightmare,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) at a hearing with AI industry leaders last week.

A recent Goldman Sachs report shows that artificial intelligence could automate about 300 million jobs, leading to a national call for action from Congress and businesses. 

The country must be galvanized like it was by John F. Kennedy’s space ambitions in the 1960s, said Michael Lotito, co-chair of Littler Mendelson PC’s Workplace Policy Institute and president of the Emma Coalition, a nonprofit focused on technology’s impact on the workforce. “He said we’re going to the moon and inspired a generation. We need somebody to stand up and say we will transform the American workforce.”

But while there won’t be a sweeping national plan to tackle automation yet, proposals in Congress to invest in and adapt workers to the changing landscape are gaining traction. Beyond discussions on possible guardrails, policy makers are contending with how to qualify workers for the new tools offered by AI, preparing them for the jobs of the future.

Focus on Education

AI’s impact on the workforce won’t be all doom and gloom, scholars say. While it carries a disruptive force, it also offers new opportunities. 

“Will it change the workplace? Yes. Will it change jobs? Yes. Will it maybe eliminate some jobs? Yes,” said Elizabeth J. Altman, associate professor of management at UMass Lowell’s Manning School of Business. “But it will also introduce new jobs and provide new opportunities.” 

Lawmakers are looking at legislation that would tackle the issue at the education level to better prepare workforces for new jobs.

One proposal introduced by Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Mike Braun (R-Ind.) would extend Pell grants to short-term educational programs that last as little as eight weeks. The scholarships are traditionally awarded only to undergraduate students enrolled in four-year degrees, and have a minimum of 15 weeks of instruction for eligibility. 

Both leaders of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, Reps. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.), have separately introduced similar short-term Pell legislation.

Scott said in an interview that the grants would be “transformational” for workforce development, preparing workers for new professions and expediting recovery to those who lose their jobs to automation.

“If your job evaporates because of technology you can get trained to the next job,” said Scott, adding that lawmakers are close to an agreement to pass short-term Pell legislation. “The AI discussion has made this a lot more immediate because people can really see the jobs changing.” 

Lawmakers also agree the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act must be updated so that job training programs better reflect current labor needs. Tech companies and business groups—including the US Chamber of Commerce, IBM Corp., and Boeing Co.—are backing those efforts.

One technology-focused initiative that could make its way into the reauthorization is a bipartisan bill sponsored by Reps. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) and Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.) that would create a five-year grant program at the US Labor Department to support community colleges and other education centers in developing workforce programs on how to use immersive technology, such as virtual reality tools.

David Giannetto, CEO of WorkWave, said that while advanced tools like AI and immersive technology will take some time to be commonplace, technology already is transforming how those workers do their current jobs. 

Workers are having to navigate apps to know what they need to repair, the parts they need, and how long it should take them to do the job. But in the trades, “the act of service is what most of the training is about,” said Giannetto, whose company provides software to businesses in the building trades. “We don’t see a lot of training on how to get comfortable with technology.”

32-Hour Work Week

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chair Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told Bloomberg Law the committee will consider legislation to reduce the regular work week from 40 to 32 hours under the Fair Labor Standards Act. 

The decades-old statute needs an update to reflect the advantages AI brings to the workplace, Sanders said. “The world has changed a little bit since then.” 

AI can reduce exhaustion brought on by time-consuming mundane tasks and solve workforce shortages in critical industries, said Orly Lobel, director of the Center for Employment and Labor Policy at the University of San Diego. A reduced work week would bring more flexibility to an increasing number of workers who seek it, she said. 

“There’s a lot of burnout for doctors, nurses, and other health-care providers, and a lot of it is associated with emails and the inbox fatigue,” Lobel said. “That’s something that we need to employ AI for, because people are quitting the health-care industry.”

But Altman was a bit more skeptical of the idea that people will work less because of technology.

“I don’t buy it,” she said.

“There’s a whole history of new technologies coming in, with new capabilities, and the result is not that we ended up with more time to watch Netflix,” said Altman, who co-authored a policy brief on AI for the Brookings Institution. “The result is that we can do more and better, be more productive, and do more interesting things.”