Bloomberg BNA: HOUSE DEM BILLS TARGET POST-AUTOMATION WORKFORCE TRAINING, DIGITAL DIVIDE

by Lydia Beyoud

House Democrats introduced a handful of bills March 16 to address future socio-economic disruption caused by job automation and help close the persistent divide in broadband access between rural and low-income communities and more affluent, urban and suburban ones.

The likelihood of job loss in the U.S. driven by tech innovation in robotics and automation is increasing. Researchers have estimated that the scale of U.S. jobs under threat due to automation in the next couple decades ranges from 9 percent to 47 percent, a December 2016 report issued by the Obama administration said.

The five bills, some of which would require billions of dollars in new appropriations, seem unlikely to make it through the current Republican-majority Congress or be signed into law.

However, they do signal some of the issues Democratic members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee are focused on ahead of a March 21 broadband infrastructure hearing.

The 21st Century Worker Opportunity Act would create a $5 billion program under the Department of Commerce targeting internet and job training subsidies for people who lose jobs due to automation. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), would offer qualifying workers a $500 lump sum subsidy that could only be used to purchase broadband internet service or pay for remote job training. The bill specifies the training must be for jobs that don’t risk being automated in the next 20 years.

A complementary bill from Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) is also focused on post-automation challenges for American workers. Her legislation would appropriate $250 million to create competitive grant programs for colleges and universities to set up job training programs. The programs would aim to prepare displaced workers for jobs in the science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) fields. It would also establish a volunteer “Innovation Corps” program, which would allow recent graduates to defer or receive student loan forgiveness in return for training displaced workers.

A bill from Rep. Dave Loebsack (D-Iowa) would require the Federal Communications Commission to figure out how to improve the data it collects on rural wireless data coverage. “We can’t invest in wireless access without accurately understanding the problem. This legislation would make sure that the FCC is using the best data to improve wireless coverage throughout rural America,” Loebsack said in a news release announcing the bill.

Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) wants the FCC to create new rules for companies that receive Lifeline subsidies to offer Wi-Fi enabled phones to their low-income customers. The goal is to help reduce the so-called Homework Gap by helping students use their parents’ devices to do homework using Wi-Fi connections, rather than use up mobile data allotments. “One-third of students from low-income and rural households can’t access the internet from home and struggle to complete work on time,” Welch said.

And a bill from Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.) would direct the FCC to include tribal areas, or communities with large Native American populations, in its consideration of policies to provide universal broadband and other telecommunications services, such as subsidy programs.