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Why Michael Dell worries about ‘opportunity for everyone’ amid automation

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The U.S. economy added a sluggish 194,000 jobs in September and the share of working-age people on the job moved little from the month prior, suggesting that millions of Americans remain on the sidelines, according to the jobs report released on Friday.

Persistent coronavirus fears amid the Delta variant, childcare responsibilities, and government support have likely contributed to what many companies have described as a labor shortage. Another reason: A lack of available workers with the skills necessary to fill open positions.

In a new interview, Dell Technologies (DELL) Chairman and CEO Michael Dell says automation will exacerbate that mismatch between the skills required by the workforce and ones on offer from people seeking employment — a trend that risks diminishing "opportunity for everyone," he says.

He called for retraining programs that help workers adapt to the shifting jobs landscape.

"If you think about this from an economic perspective, we have a lot of people that are not participating in the economy," he says. "And yet we have these shortages for skills that are huge, and [there is] lot of retraining required." 

Between 400 million and 800 million people worldwide could be displaced by automation and need to find new jobs by 2030, according to a report released by McKinsey & Company in 2017. 

While some of the founders of tech giants are among the world's richest people, their technological advances have not delivered comparable income gains for workers. 

Since the 1970s, technology has helped enable productivity growth of 61.8% while hourly pay has risen just 17.5%, according to a report updated last month by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.

The World Economic Forum, host of the annual conference in Davos, Switzerland, found in 2016 that technology had already worsened inequality in upper- and middle-income countries and would "eventually spread to the entire world."

"One hundred years ago, most people could do pretty much every job that there was," Dell says. "Who can program robots and design spaceships and do brain surgery, come up with the algorithms and that sort of thing — fewer and fewer people."

"So I think creating more skills — because the pace of change is only going to accelerate — is something that I'm certainly concerned about," he says. "Lots of people are concerned about it, and I think for good reason." 

In January, House Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) introduced the Relaunching America’s Workforce Act, which includes billions in spending on career training programs for unemployed adults and students. The measure has received support from 26 Democratic members but hasn't reached the House floor.

In this Aug. 21, 2015 photo, a Chinese man works amid orange robot arms at Rapoo Technology factory in southern Chinese industrial boomtown of Shenzhen. Factories in China are rapidly replacing those workers with automation, a pivot that's encouraged by rising wages and new official directives aimed at helping the country move away from low-cost manufacturing as the supply of young, pliant workers shrinks. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)
In this Aug. 21, 2015 photo, a Chinese man works amid orange robot arms at Rapoo Technology factory in southern Chinese industrial boomtown of Shenzhen. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

Speaking to Yahoo Finance, Dell cautioned that automation will accelerate, and hasten the need for retraining.

"The pace of change is not going to slow down," he says. "Technology doesn't sort of have an opinion on these things."

"It doesn't wake up in the morning and say, 'Okay, let's wait until everybody, has caught up,'" he adds. "It just marches on."

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