Podcast: COVID and the Future of Work, With Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA)

July 20, 2020

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The changing nature of labor markets—and how best to prepare people and society for the jobs of the future—is one of the most crucial public policy challenges that policymakers around the world will face in the coming years. This was already the case before COVID-19, but disruption from the pandemic has made things exponentially more challenging. Rob and Jackie discuss how Congress can address these challenges with Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA), chairman of the House New Democrat Coalition.




Rob Atkinson: Welcome to Innovation Files. I’m Rob Atkinson, founder and president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. We’re a DC based think tank that works on technology policy.

Jackie Whisman: And I’m Jackie Whisman. I handle outreach at ITIF, which I’m proud to say is the world’s top rank think tank for science and technology policy.

Rob Atkinson: And this podcast is about the kinds of issues we cover at ITIF, from the broad economics of innovation, to specific policy questions about new technologies. In this episode, we’re going to be talking about the future of work, the changing nature of work and labor markets, and how to best prepare people and societies for the jobs of the future and also the critical policy questions that policy makers will have to face in coming years.

Jackie Whisman: Rob, you worked on a huge study a couple years ago, comparing the dynamics of future of work around the world. And it made the case for agile public policies that are tailored to specific countries, regions, and even individuals. And you’ve written a lot about how policy makers should focus on helping displaced workers.

Rob Atkinson: Yeah, and right now the COVID crisis is obviously adding a new and fortunate wrinkle to this. It’s straining labor markets. It’s going to change how labor markets work. It’s going to change the kinds of jobs we have. And so this is really a critical question now. So I’m really looking forward to talking this through with today’s guest.

Jackie Whisman: Congressman Derek Kilmer has served as US Representative for Washington’s 6th Congressional District since 2012. He serves on the house appropriations committee and is chair of the house New Democrat Coalition. Rob and I are both big fans and are thrilled he’s here to chat with us. Welcome, Congressman.

Derek Kilmer: Thanks so much. It’s great to be with you both.

Jackie Whisman: So you chair a caucus called the New Democrat Coalition in the house. It’s a group ITIF has been working with for years, but is little known outside of the beltway despite its size and its influence. Can you talk a little bit about the coalition and its priorities?

Derek Kilmer: Yeah, you bet. So the New Dem Coalition is a coalition of 104 members of Congress. It’s pro-innovation, pro-growth—more pragmatic Democrats. We are currently the largest ideological coalition in the house. To your point, we’re not always leading cable news since it’s often the louder voices that are covered on cable news, but we’re called the New Democrats because we’re really focused on looking at old problems through a new lens. So rather than is often the case for discussions around our economy, rather than debating how to distribute or redistribute the economic pie, our main focus is trying to make sure that we grow the economic pie for everybody and making sure that every American has an opportunity to earn a slice of it.

Rather than looking at government as either always the problem or as the solution to every problem, our focus is, how do you reinvent government to make sure that government is doing a better job of solving problems on behalf of the American people? And to the point of today’s conversation, really one of the pillars for the New Dems has been trying to figure out how to make sure that Americans have an opportunity to earn a good living and in the midst of disruptive economic change, how do we empower people to navigate that change rather than to be victims of it?

Rob Atkinson: One of the reasons why there’s so much focus and discussion of the future work is because there’s a whole set of new technologies. What I called in a recent report “CAI”—connected, autonomous, and intelligent—a suite of 5G, internet of things, autonomous systems robots, and obviously AI. So this has been an important issue for the New Dems. In fact, you have a special working group looking at this. Can you say a little bit more about that? Why you’re focusing on that and what are the kinds of things you’re looking at and what are the kinds of things you hope to do legislatively?

Derek Kilmer: I often think about this through the lens of my life. When I was a little kid growing up in Port Angeles, Washington, which is a logging town on the coast, my dad and I would go hiking and he liked to take photographs. We would stop by Kit’s Camera in Port Angeles, we’d buy a bunch of Kodak’s supplies, we’d go out into the woods and take nature photographs and things like that. Now all these years later, Kit’s Camera doesn’t exist anymore. Kodak now employs 4% of what it employed when I was a kid. And it’s not necessarily bad change in that all of us have cameras on our phones now, we by and large don’t print our photos anymore, we post them. But it was really disruptive if you owned Kit’s Camera or if you worked at Kodak.

My first job, Rob, I don’t know if you know this? My first job was at a video store, Westside Video in Port Angeles. For those listeners who are younger, we used to have these things called video stores. It really bums me out that the words “be kind, please rewind” mean nothing to my daughters because they live in this extraordinary world of Netflix and YouTube and on demand and Prime and Instagram. Unlimited content at their fingertips. Again, not necessarily a bad thing, but it was bad if you owned Westside Video or if you worked there. Even I think about after my kids were born, our Sunday tradition was we went to our church, go to a Methodist church and then we would go to Borders bookshop and let our kids tool around in the kids section. And my wife and I would sit upstairs drinking coffee and sometimes we’d buy a book and sometimes we wouldn’t.

But when my kids were born, there were 36,000 people in this country working at one of 1,400 boarders bookshops. And now there are zero. And again, it’s not necessarily change that is necessarily bad in that people have unlimited content faster than ever, but really, really disruptive. And so part of the focus of the New Dems is I think an understanding that you can’t stop that change, but you have to figure out how to empower people to navigate that change. And I think it’s something that sets us apart as economic thought leaders in the Congress to make sure all Americans have the opportunity to earn a good life. We put forward an economic opportunity agenda that was called The Future That Works. And it really seeks to empower Americans. It focuses on trying to close the skills gap and the opportunity gap. Tries to kind of reformulate the 21st century social contract so that we look at things like portable benefits and try to provide a better way of empowering workers.

So on the skills and opportunity gap, for example, we’ve looked at new tools to help people adapt, to highlight their own experiences and talents, ways to lean on our career and tech ed systems, more opportunities to provide training for early and mid-career workers so that we can up-skill people or that they can change occupations when a new opportunity arises. These are some of the things that we’ve really been working at as a coalition.

Rob Atkinson: You mentioned Blockbuster. I remember the first time I ever went to a Blockbuster, I was visiting my best friend out in California. And we were out there for a Friday night and he took me to this place, I was amazed, oh my gosh. My favorite podcast besides ITIF’s Innovation Files.

Jackie Whisman: Well, and the congressman’s.

Derek Kilmer: Yeah, and my podcast.

Rob Atkinson: My third favorite podcast, it’s called Business Wars. And one of my favorite series was on the fight between Netflix and Blockbuster. And it really showed how Blockbuster sort of missed the boat on that. They could have really been the Netflix. Now that probably wouldn’t have done a lot for all the workers, but it would have had a little bit less disruption. I wanted to ask you though you mentioned part of the navigation of all this, it seems like one of the big challenges in the US as we’ve become more of a knowledge economy in the last two or three decades, where if you have a college degree you’re doing pretty well. There was a new study in the Washington Post today showing that college graduates have done less worse in the COVID crisis because of the nature of the jobs they have. But the Trump administration recently announced a proposal that we had made about two years ago.

I think they had gotten it from us. I was pleased about that. And that was to allow OPM, the Office of Personnel Management to hire on the basis of skills and competencies. Not on the base of degrees. This is something that companies like IBM and I think a number of banks have done, and it’s a way to basically open up the labor market so that if you’ve got the skills and the competency, you don’t have to get a college degree, I was just wondering what your thoughts are on that idea?

Derek Kilmer: Yeah, it’s a component of what the New Dems have looked at, and I would invite folks who are listening, we have on the New Dem Coalition’s website our agenda called The Future of Work. But it’s a component of that. I think there’s a recognition that we need to be valuing knowledge and capability, not seat time. And the most clear example of that has been with folks coming out of the military, where they have extraordinary skills, extraordinary talents that aren’t always embraced and acknowledged by private industry, just because they haven’t necessarily checked a specific box that is often on a job description. And we’re really trying to pivot that so that employers are looking at knowledge and capabilities, not just seat time.

Jackie Whisman: And you introduced legislation to help workers access skills training programs, which you alluded to earlier, but this included retraining. And I think we’d love to hear a little more about that specific piece, if you don’t mind.

Derek Kilmer: Yeah. I’ve introduced a couple of bills on this front, both of which are bipartisan. The first is called the skills investment act, and it’s really targeted towards helping workers deal with the kind of economic disruption that we’re chatting about. My dad was a school teacher. He taught for 50 years. And the days in which someone starts a job and is in the same job for 50 years are probably over, or at least it’s a really uncommon thing. And so the skills investment act basically uses an idea called lifelong learning accounts that function almost like a health savings account or a 401k, but focused on workforce training where the employer would pay in, the employee would pay in. Both would see some tax benefit for it. And the worker could use it so that if the nature of their job was changing, they could go pursue additional training.

If they were in an entry level position and wanted to work their way into a higher paying role, they could do that. They could go take night classes at the local community college, or if they lost their job, they could pull upon that account to get retrained. And again, consistent with what the New Dems have put out with regard to the future of work, part of our idea is to have portable benefits that attach to the worker, even if their relationship with their employer doesn’t persist. So that’s one bill that we’ve put forward. And I actually think that’s the type of thing given that we need to be looking at how people who are already in the labor market can navigate economic disruption. I think that could be really helpful.

The other bill that we just put forward in the midst of COVID was a bill called the Skills Renewal Act. You heard the chair of the Fed express concern that workers could see skills erosion, because they’ve not been using their skills for a long period of time. And though a lot of workers may see their jobs come back, unfortunately, many won’t. And I think it is a good and important question for government to be asking, how do we make sure that those workers aren’t just left behind? How do we re-empower them? And so we have a bill that would provide some assistance for them to pursue retraining so that they can hopefully get attached into a new job with good wages, good benefits, and a good future.

Rob Atkinson: Those are all fantastic and other parts of that package as well, which we’ve read with great interest in admiration. But one of the things I wanted to ask you is ITIF came out with a comprehensive package of what we think national skills and readjustment systems should look like. And one of the frustrations for us is you look at other countries and not every country, but you look at a place like Singapore. Oh my gosh. They’re like a global model. They have this down to a science. Countries like France started a new training voucher program a little bit like what you’re proposing. A lot of countries are really taking this seriously and moving forward and it’s been frustrating to us that we haven’t seemed to be able to make that much progress here. Our system, frankly, isn’t all that good compared to the best systems in the world. It’s parts of it that work okay. I’m just wondering what are your thoughts on that? Why do you think that’s the case and are you hopeful that perhaps we could make some meaningful reforms in the next year or two?

Derek Kilmer: It’s one of the rare areas where Democrats and Republicans agree with the value of the investment, right? Workforce development is a real winner. To your point, listen, not every job is going to require an advanced degree, but we do know that as educational attainment goes up, so does the likelihood that someone’s employed rather than unemployed. So do wages. In my state, if you’re a high school dropout, these numbers are probably about a decade old. I have to get an update to them. But as of 10 years ago, if you were from my state, if you had dropped out of high school, you were 17% of my state’s population. You were 55% of my state’s prison population.

And I think almost without exception when we engage our constituents, they would much rather invest on the front end in providing people with educational opportunities and opportunities to develop their skills, than on the back end in unemployment and in prisons. But that’s a decision we make every time a state or the federal government passes a budget. And I think for far too long, there has been an inadequate investment in our workforce development system. And listen, even looking at leveraging apprenticeship programs, our community technical college systems can really be an extraordinary way to enhance the likelihood that someone’s able to navigate economic change rather than to be victimized by it.

Jackie Whisman: And the COVID crisis brought home that an economic crisis can hit unexpectedly. And while Congress took historic action, it took time for these policies to take effect and it’s not clear that Congress will act again in time in the near future. You and the New Dems put forward the concept of automatic stabilizers. Can you say more about this and what it would look like, and do?

Derek Kilmer: Yeah. Let me start with the problem we’re tying to solve. I think as we’ve dealt with this pandemic, it’s really hard not to think about the scene from Jaws where Brody leans over the boat and sees the shark and walks into the boat’s cabin and says to the skipper, “We’re going to need a bigger boat.” And that has really been played out over the last several months. The very first coronavirus response bill was an $8.8 billion bill and was considered substantial when Congress passed it. The CARES Act in contrast was well over a trillion dollars and yet we’re seeing persistent need. And so unfortunately just the staggering impact of this virus on our communities increases on a daily basis. And that’s been the trend over the last few months. And the federal government has really struggled to keep up with the needs that we’re seeing currently in my region and all across the country.

And so what we have proposed as a coalition is in essence, a bigger boat, so that what we’ve suggested is as you referenced, automatic stabilizers or triggers, so that the assistance that’s provided from the federal government continues as long as negative economic conditions persist. So what am I talking about? Unemployment compensation. You look at the crisis of ‘08 and Congress voted 13 separate times to extend unemployment help from the federal government. 13 separate times. And what that meant was before each of those votes, there was brinkmanship. There was uncertainty. States have no idea and unemployed workers have no idea whether additional help is on the way. What we’ve proposed is let’s just build some rules of the road into the game at the front end.

So if we know these are the conditions, so for example, with regard to unemployment assistance, Don Beyer and I’ve worked on a bill called the Worker Relief and Security Act, which would in essence say emergency unemployment insurance assistance would continue through the national health emergency and then benefit extensions and additional payments would vary based on the circumstances that we’re seeing on the ground in states across our country.

We’ve been looking at this, not just with regard to unemployment compensation. We’ve looked at this with regard to nutrition assistance, with regard to aid to states and to health providers. But our view is the automatic stabilizers, listen, we’re in the midst of a really uncertain time and families need to know, small businesses need to know that they’re not going to just be left without help. And automatic stabilizers basically build in better responsiveness to meet those needs that are on the ground and to provide some predictability for people and for communities in a time of just extraordinary uncertainty. By linking the assistance to the economic conditions, you can provide some certainty that the critical help is going to be there until our economy is on more solid footing.

Rob Atkinson: So there were a number of studies looking at the great depression of the ‘30s, and they all have come to the conclusion that one of the reasons it was so bad and so long, was there just simply were no automatic stabilizers. And now we have some income taxes that are graduated. We do have unemployment insurance. Your proposal with Congressman Beyer would just strengthen that process. It would make it so that we don’t have as deep and as long recessions, besides just helping people.

I guess, one of the points that I think is important to make here is in my mind, this is very different than the debate about the $600 bonus for unemployment insurance. That’s a separate debate. I think what you’re talking about is just simply saying, let’s not have to go back and have all this uncertainty that if you’re above a certain trigger of whatever the measure is, unemployment or some other measure, it’s just, we’re going to have a program. And it would seem to be that’s something that both parties could support because for maybe more free market, smaller government advocates or supporters, this is saying, this is temporary. Once we get back on normal, it goes away. Or it goes back to where it was.

Derek Kilmer: Well I think there is value in recognizing that stabilizers, both say when additional dollars should be put in, but also indicate when they should be turned off. And we’re in the midst of a significant economic emergency. And you heard this again from the chair of the Fed saying in the absence of additional support from the federal government, we could really see a prolonged recession, potentially even a depression. And I think it is appropriate for policymakers to be thinking about, how do you create some certainty in a really uncertain time?

Jackie Whisman: To wrap up, what’s the technology you’re most excited about right now?

Derek Kilmer: Well, in the midst of the pandemic, I’m quite tempted to list off every streaming service that my family and I have used. And you may see the Star Wars Pez dispensers over my left shoulder. I feel like maybe I should say Disney Plus or something like that because I’d be able to stream the Mandalorian with my kiddos.

Rob Atkinson: Well, I was going to ask you next, what’s your favorite Star Wars movie of all time?

Jackie Whisman: Yeah, I’m surprised it took us this long to talk about Star Wars.

Derek Kilmer: Well, I’m a huge Star Wars fan and I shouldn’t be cavalier about your question. Actually one of the things I did want to just share before telling Rob that Empire Strikes Back is my favorite movie. So I chair a new committee in Congress. About every 20 or 30 years or so, Congress realizes things aren’t working the way they ought to, and they create a committee to try to do something about it. And this committee is called the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. And one of the big things that we’ve looked at is technology. Congress has been described as an 18th century institution using 20th century technology to solve 21st century problems. And I think that’s really true.

So we’ve been looking at even just basic things about how members of Congress can use technology to engage their constituents or how technology can be used in the process of drafting legislation. Many state legislatures have figured out how to enable policy makers to see in real time, here’s the law that we’re changing. Here’s how what we’re proposing would change it. These sorts of things are unfortunately not part of our reality in the nation’s capital. And so a lot of my focus right now on technology is how do we leverage technology to have Congress do a better job of meeting the needs and solving problems for the American people?

Rob Atkinson: That’s a great example of I think really critically important work. And I followed what you and I’m sorry, I don’t remember your co-chair?

Derek Kilmer: Tom Graves.

Rob Atkinson: Yeah. And it’s just great work. And again, it’s one of those areas that if you’re not in Washington, everybody thinks it’s a hotbed of partisan hatred, but there’s a good example where both sides really are committed to this working it through. So I hope there’s some real progress there. There’s so many opportunities for Congress to use advanced technologies to not only make the process better, but also more transparent for the average voter.

Derek Kilmer: Yeah. You bet. That’s the idea. And thankfully we’ve been a committee that’s been able to function in a really bipartisan way. We’ve now passed more than 45 recommendations. All of which have been unanimous. That’s rare in DC, but it’s important because people are hungry to see Congress work better.

Rob Atkinson: Just lastly, I just have to say that here we agree a 100 percent, that Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars movie.

Derek Kilmer: Right on.

Rob Atkinson: Also that I can’t wait for Mandalorian season two.

Derek Kilmer: I think it is fair to say that this has been a good advertisement for Disney Plus.

Jackie Whisman: Well, thanks so much for being with us congressman. Can you tell our listeners where they can find you, listen to your podcast, follow your tweets?

Derek Kilmer: Yeah. I am @RepDerekKilmer on Twitter. I’m kilmer.house.gov. We do an email newsletter on a weekly basis now to let folks know what we’re up to. I have a currently somewhat dormant podcast cause we’ve been focused on trying to stick as many fingers and toes and the holes in the dam through the course of this pandemic. And that has put the podcast to sleep for a while, but it is the terrifically entitled, Quick Questions about Congress with Kilmer, where I spend about 15 minutes just talking to some of my colleagues about what brought them here and what they focus on and things they think could make the place function a little bit better. And I will tell you, it has the most adorable theme song sung by my then four-year-old daughter. So it’s a winner. I got to tell you, it’s a winner

Jackie Whisman: And you can get more cute kid content on your Instagram feed too.

Derek Kilmer: Exactly. Exactly.

Jackie Whisman: Well, thank you Congressman again and that’s it for this week. If you liked it, please be sure to rate us and subscribe. Feel free to email show ideas or questions to [email protected]. You can find the show notes and sign up for our weekly email newsletter on our website, itf.org and follow us on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, @ITIFdc.

Rob Atkinson: That’s it for now, but we have more episodes and great guests lined up. New episodes will drop every Monday morning. So we hope you’ll tune in next week.


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Podcast: COVID and the Future of Work, With Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA)