“We haven’t seen a shift of this magnitude since the Great Depression.” Kevin Witte, Vice President of Economic and Community Development, Clark College

At a regularly-scheduled commission meeting in February, port commissioners, staff and others in attendance heard a presentation in our Thought Leadership series by invited guest Kevin Witte. Witte is Clark College’s vice president of economic and community development, and his message was both frightening and promising.

Witte pointed to a 2017 study by the Portland Business Alliance, in which it reports that 49 percent of the job tasks currently done in the Greater Portland Metro Area are expected to be automated within 10 years. With artificial intelligence anticipated to create a massive disruption to our area’s economy and way of life, preparedness is critical, Witte explained.

“The internet age was much slower in changing our way of life. The advancement of A.I., however, is moving much more rapidly,” said Witte. “We haven’t seen a shift of this magnitude since the Great Depression.” Witte noted that specific industries are at risk of shifting to automation.

These include accommodations, retail trade, food services, and manufacturing. So the incumbent work force in those industries and others will need retraining to learn skills in jobs at low risk of replacement by automation. The good news is that Clark College is anticipating this, and has an idea that if it bears fruit, could be a boon to Ridgefield and Clark County.

The answer, Witte believes, is for Clark College to establish a program and facility in Ridgefield, modeled after Sheffield, England, a steel manufacturing and coal-producing town that saw unemployment of 90 percent in the 1980s.

“Sheffield was ground zero for the Industrial Revolution, but when all the mills closed, and the mines were shuttered, townspeople were frustrated, and peaceful protesters were beat up by the police. It was a challenging time for Sheffield,” said Witte.

In a story of success, Sheffield turned itself around by returning to its manufacturing roots, but with an emphasis on advanced manufacturing. These kinds of jobs require more knowledge and skills than simple line manufacturing, and are resistant to replacement through automation. Companies that have been attracted to the program in Sheffield offer apprenticeships as a means of educating their own workforces. Today, the large campus at Sheffield is a national hub for research and innovation with 500 researchers and technicians, and a 1,000 people strong apprentice program.

Could something like this work in Ridgefield? Witte says Clark College leadership believes it can. The institution’s goal is to establish a program so Ridgefield becomes ground zero for advanced manufacturing and serves as an economic generator for the whole area.

“What’s coming in our digital world is that there will be people who serve machines, and people who develop machines,” Witte said. “You don’t want to be the person who serves the machine.”