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A Comprehensive Approach to Transatlantic Workforce Development

This blog is part of an ongoing series of contributions from participants in The German Marshall Fund’s flagship leadership development program, The Marshall Memorial Fellowship (MMF).

From the EU’s proposed digital tax on U.S. technological companies to the upcoming May 2018 implementation date of the General Data Protection Regulation, technology, digitization, and innovation have been highly salient and, at times, controversial topics on the transatlantic policy agenda. While technological innovation has given rise to overall higher standard of living, it has also further exacerbated the pre-existing economic fissures between the rich and poor in both the United States and European Union.

Technological innovation can be observed in a variety of forms, but perhaps most common is the trend toward automation, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence. Increasing rates of automation (and resulting higher productivity rates) have led to the culling and/or relocation of manufacturing and other traditionally blue-collar jobs in both the United States and EU, resulting in a fundamental economic restructuring (and reckoning) in both places. The manifestation of this economic reckoning can be seen in the Brexit vote and election of Donald Trump. Scholars have offered various theories for these two shocking geopolitical developments, but chief among them are rising economic inequality and deep mistrust of outsiders/immigrants by native populations. Rising economic inequality is rooted in educational inequality and inadequate workforce development/workforce readiness.

Travelling through Europe as a Marshall Memorial Fellow, I recognized the urgent need to reframe the issue of workforce development as not just an economic issue, but also a security issue. In my conversations at NATO headquarters in Brussels, human capital emerged as the main challenge to cybersecurity preparedness. Investments can be made in cybersecurity infrastructure, but in order for those investments to pay dividends, a highly skilled and durable workforce must be developed and successfully retained in each of the 29 NATO member countries. Not only are such concerns salient in international organizations such as NATO, but they are also prominent in individual European countries. The Slovak government, for example, has outlined strategies to recruit, develop, and retain qualified cyber personnel. Similar concerns about developing a workforce well versed in cyber issues exist in the United States: As a corporate attorney, I have increasingly noticed companies adding chief information officers to the C-Suite ranks and weighing whether cybersecurity experts should be added to advisory and corporate governance bodies, such as a public company’s board of directors.

There is a need to also examine workforce readiness from a public health perspective. In Copenhagen, I had the opportunity to meet with a representative from the Danish government’s Life Sciences Growth Team. I learned that Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases are becoming increasingly commonplace in aging countries such as Denmark. These devastating conditions require very expensive care and place a strain on the healthcare infrastructure in Denmark. Coupled with low birth rates and the resulting net aggregate decline in the workforce, it is easy to see why the medical and public health workforce will be strained in the coming years. A similar situation is evident in Slovakia where a brain drain, coupled with extremely draconian immigration policies, has led to a shortage of qualified medical personnel. The United States is also grappling with this looming public health problem as the number of qualified medical personnel cannot keep up with the demands imposed by the aging baby boomer generation. 

A concerted, sustained effort between the public and private sector is essential in alleviating structural deficiencies and dislocations in the economy. For example, to combat the pervasive brain drain problem plaguing Slovakia, the government is working closely with the burgeoning startup scene in Bratislava to attract bright, young university graduates who would otherwise pursue employment abroad. In Copenhagen, the Danish government has established a technology ambassador position — the world’s first diplomatic post focused exclusively on resolving foreign policy concerns surrounding technology, cyber, and privacy; promoting foreign direct technology investment in Denmark (including the creation of jobs) and promoting Danish technology companies abroad. Finally, recognizing that the Five Star Movement came to power as a result of widespread feelings of economic malaise among the Italian citizenry (while in Turin, I learned that citizens were angry that Whirlpool had moved thousands of jobs to Slovakia), politicians affiliated with the Five Star Movement have highlighted the issue of workforce development. Many European cities, such as Bratislava, rely heavily on foreign direct investment (the foreign automobile industry makes up a disproportionate percentage of the Bratislava economy). Therefore, a true transatlantic private-public sector partnership is required to successfully tackle the challenging issue of workforce development.

-Keerthika Subramanian

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