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Jamie Merisotis, CEO of Lumina Foundation: The Robot Zombie Apocalypse is Not Coming

WorkforceRx with Futuro Health
WorkforceRx with Futuro Health
Jamie Merisotis, CEO of Lumina Foundation: The Robot Zombie Apocalypse is Not Coming


“We know from history that technology both creates and destroys jobs, and we don't know what will happen this time around,” says Jamie Merisotis, author of the new book Human Work in the Age of Machines, “but I do think we should be more interested in the work that humans can do, because that is clearly something we can control by better preparing people for that human work.” That preparation needs to focus on nurturing “foundational human capabilities” that set us apart from machines – compassion, empathy, ethics and creativity to name a few. As he reveals in his book, Merisotis believes the end result can be a collaborative relationship between workers and technology. As President and CEO of Lumina Foundation, Merisotis has been a driving force in increasing access to post-secondary education not only for its economic benefits but because of the role education plays in cultivating the critical thinking essential to a functioning democratic society. Check out this revealing conversation with Futuro Health CEO Van Ton-Quinlivan about rethinking how we can restructure education, work and benefits to better meet the challenges and opportunities upon us.


Van Ton Quinlivan: Welcome to WorkforceRx with Futuro Health, where future-focused leaders in education, health care and workforce development explore new education to work approaches and innovations. I’m your host Van Ton-Quinlivan, CEO of Futuro Health. I’m excited to have my guest, Jamie Merisotis, today because he’s going to help us think through something everyone in workforce development is trying to understand: what will be the impact be of AI, automation and digitalization on the future of work, and how can we help workers successfully ready themselves rather than fear this future?

Jamie is a longtime president and CEO of Lumina Foundation, an independent private foundation that is committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available to all. But perhaps more important to our discussion today, he’s the author of the new book Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines, which looks at the possibilities and opportunities he sees in this emerging trend. Jamie, so good to reconnect with you today. Thank you for joining us.

Jamie Merisotis: Thank you, Van. Great to be with you.

Van Ton Quinlivan: When I was executive vice chancellor in the California system of 115 community colleges, I often referenced your foundation’s big goal, the call for 60 percent of Americans to attain a high-quality postsecondary degree or credential. What’s your report card on the nation’s reaction to this call to action, and is this goal still important to you and the Lumina Foundation?

Jamie Merisotis: It certainly is important to us. I think at the end of the day, I give us a pretty good grade. I’m a hard grader. I’d give us a B or a B-plus on our efforts so far, and I’d like to explain why. I think that we all know that the demand for talent has never been more urgent. It’s growing even with the pandemic and the issues around racial injustice and unemployment that have been revealed in the last year.  I think that we know that even with those things, research shows that things that reflect quality of life — income, personal well-being, civic participation, those kind of things — they’re highest with people who have a post-secondary credential, a degree, a certificate, a certification, something that has that kind of value. And as human work evolves to require broader knowledge, skills and abilities, I think the rewards for people with talent who have those credentials are only going to increase.

So, when we started this effort at Lumina Foundation, we wanted to catalyze the country towards the 60 percent goal that you’re talking about in 2008. Since 2008, we’ve seen an increase in the national attainment effort from 38 percent to more than 51 percent. In basic numbers, 12 million more adults have college degrees or other credentials than in 2008. We are clear at Lumina that we think that 60 percent goal is within reach, because even with the headwinds associated with the pandemic, with the racial injustice, with the unemployment that I mentioned, we are projecting that 56 percent of working age adults will have a post-secondary credential by 2025. So that four-percentage point gap is about 6.9 million more credentials that need to be generated. It’s why we are focused so heavily at Lumina Foundation on short term credentials and associate degrees delivered through community colleges. It’s why we are so focused on racial equity and justice as a part of our efforts. Lumina is holding itself publicly accountable for racial equity and justice by describing ourselves as an equity-first organization and we think that’s critically important to the work. So, at the end of the day, I think increasing post-secondary education is more important than ever, and it’s why Lumina Foundation continues to want to drive all the way through to the finish line of the 2025 goal.

Van Ton Quinlivan: Well, bravo. Taking the numbers from 38 percent to 51 percent was a huge jump for the nation, so thank you for your leadership, and I’m definitely cheering all of us on to hitting the 60 percent bar. Now, you talked a little bit about headwinds and particularly let’s talk about headwinds for adults and adults of color. I sit on the National Student Clearinghouse Board, which is the entity that collects all the higher education participation data around the country, and this pandemic is not doing us any favors in terms of moving these numbers in the right direction. I was particularly surprised by the 11 percent decline in community college enrollment, despite the low tuition offered by community colleges. Usually in a down economy, people would flood to the community colleges and in an up economy they would experience lower enrollment. What do you think is happening here and how does that affect your community college strategy as well as work that you may be doing with the Biden Administration?

Jamie Merisotis: Well, I think you and I have both written a lot about these issues of what happens in these environments. And you’re absolutely right. The pattern is backward from what it usually has been. I think what we misestimated…even last summer, we were both probably saying we think enrollments would go up last fall and we were wrong, and I think it’s a combination of things that are unique. The fear of the pandemic, I think, was something we didn’t accurately take into account. That combined with the fact that there’s been a disproportionate impact on women and particularly women of color has created more headwinds than we probably thought, and there’s probably some other factors. So, I think it’s important to recognize that as we think about how we’re approaching this, at the end of the day I think there’s an opportunity here to bring education and workforce and economic development policies together to coordinate them better, particularly leading with equity as a core part of what we want to do. This opportunity exists because of the way that the Biden administration has focused their efforts.

I think there are several ways that we can do that, that we can actually improve the ways in which we can go about doing that. One is alignment with in-demand credentials. Things like credential-as-you-go models so that students who are on the pathway to maybe an associate degree will get other credentials along the way — industry certifications, things like that. I think that’s really important. Individuals need milestones. They need markers on the pathway to motivate them to keep going, and that is one way to do that particularly for these working adults.

Another is to bundle the different supports that people need. This idea of bundling and sequencing and delivering the supports that students need to persist and succeed from the time they enroll to when they complete is really important. People don’t seem to recognize that for students at community colleges, non-tuition expenses are about 80 percent of the cost of attendance. You are dealing with things like child care and transportation and food and housing and all of these other things that are actually significant challenges to your ability to get through the learning opportunities. We know that if you can adequately address those combinations of factors, you can increase completion rates by 10 percent or more. And then if you add in things like advising and other forms of holistic support so that it’s not a piecemeal approach, you can actually get to even higher levels of success. So that’s another factor.

The third one is doing a better job of developing culturally relevant implementation. You know, this phrase that people in our field have talked about “guided pathways” I think is really important. But in thinking about guided pathways to completion for Black, Latino and Native American students, you have to acknowledge that there are culturally relevant factors at work here. We’ve done some work with schools around the country to try to address this. A recent example is from Colorado where three community colleges used those culturally relevant practices to try to actually reshape the curriculum and develop things that are in the curriculum that are more relevant to the students’ background and culture.  That actually improved outcomes for students, particularly in the gateway courses. Again, if you add in other things like mentoring, along with the redesign of the courses, you can see significant student outcome increases.

The Center for Urban Education’s Equity Scorecard, which helps to disaggregate data about student success by race, shows that you can substantially increase attainment rates for Black and Latino students doing that kind of work. I think from a policy perspective, what we have to do particularly at the federal policy level, is address some of these factors. Financing is important, so doubling the Pell Grant is one way to go because it addresses both the tuition and a non-tuition cost. So that would be one proposal that’s clearly very important. Another would be to make sure that we actually relaunch efforts like the TAACCCT grant program — Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training — in order to bring the workforce and higher ed efforts together that I talked about earlier.

And another thing that I think might be worth thinking about is creating incentives for states to formally or informally reorganize how they govern workforce and higher ed programs into some sort of coordinated or even single state agency that leads to those equitable talent outcomes that I’ve been talking about. I mentioned this in my last book called America Needs Talent, this idea of a U.S. Department of Talent and I think states and the federal government could think about these coordinated efforts to bring the higher ed and the workforce strategies together.

Van Ton Quinlivan: Alignment with in-demand industry credentials, bundling support, culturally relevant implementation along with these policy ideas — excellent list, Jamie. Even on the point of student support, this last year, Futuro Health underwrote 1,600 students into health care credential pathways. Our average age of student is 35.  85 percent are female, 87 percent diverse and 34 percent bilingual. The lives that they are living…they’re dealing with death in a way that is reflective of the pandemic, and here in California, they’re also dealing with fire and homelessness as a result of that. So, there’s just so many things that are difficult for our students and really require…

Jamie Merisotis: When we talk about essential workers, Van, that’s it. Right? Those are the people. We should be addressing their needs. Well said.

Van Ton Quinlivan:  The last time we saw each other in person, you were packing up to go on your sabbatical in the UK to write your new book, which is Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines. Before you left for London, there were discussions galore on the future of work, and that was all the rage. Everyone fretted and wondered how we humans would keep up with the machine. You were always pretty calm, though, Jamie, and you were never worried about “robot zombie apocalypses.” Give us a preview of how the future will unfold for us humans.

Jamie Merisotis: Well, you and I have known each other for a while. I’ve spent my life at this intersection of learning and work. I’ve tried to make it more inclusive and more diverse and obviously increase attainment along the lines that we were talking about earlier. One of the reasons I wrote the book is that people keep asking us this question in education, what is education for? As I started to explore that idea, I realized that there was this new thing that we needed to be talking about more — it’s not new, but it’s a new understanding of what’s happening with work — which is that human work is the work that only humans can do.

We know that technology and AI is taking over more of the tasks that people used to do. But as you said, every meeting that I went to for several years was fixated on this robot zombie apocalypse and I think that we know from history that technology both creates and destroys jobs and we don’t know what will happen this time around. But I do think we should be more interested in the work that humans can do, because I think that is clearly something we can control by better preparing people for that human work. We know what machines are good at. They’re good at a lot of things: speed, pattern, algorithms, repetition. But as Ken Goldberg, who runs a robotics program at Berkeley, pointed out to me, machines can’t understand subtlety and nuance and how people react in unpredictable ways. So, the more we interact, the way you and I are doing now as humans, the less likely it can be done by machines.

What we’ve got to do is nurture those foundational human capabilities to prepare people for human work and prepare people with the compassion, the empathy, the ethics, the collaboration, the interpersonal communication, the creativity…traits and characteristics that you don’t just innately possess, you also have to develop over the course of your entire lifetime.

Maybe we can come back to this this issue later, but I think it’s important to also understand that one of the things that really makes us different than the machines is that at the end of day for us as humans, work matters. Machines don’t care about what they’re doing, but we do because it gives us social mobility and dignity and personal satisfaction and meaning and all of these other things. I profile a couple of dozen people in the book to try to put the human face on these human workers. I just think it’s too important to try to make this argument abstractly, and there’s some great stories. I learned so many things by talking with people. There’s a guy who works at Cummins Engine in Indiana named Joel Lewis.  He had worked on the assembly line at Cummins putting pistons into diesel engines for Dodge Ram pickup trucks for years. And over the course of several decades, he saw the assembly process continue to advance as Cummins develop more advanced power generation and diesel engine products.

His colleagues over time increasingly became robots, collaborative robots, “cobots”, they call them at Cummins. What he did was understand that because these smart machines — which are made possible by advances in sensor technology and AI — are literally sharing the same space, that this is a part of the new human work experience, right?  You are working with the technology. It’s not that you’re doing what’s left over after the technology does its part. You are working with it. And in fact, part of Joel’s job is to actually go through several phases of training and retraining by not only doing that work himself, but training other workers and actually doing the work to train the cobots. It’s a good example of somebody who worked in a traditional manufacturing context, technology has changed their job, he still has that job, but it’s a different job. The tasks within his job have changed and I think that’s what’s most important, is developing opportunities for people to build those human traits and capabilities. That’s the key in this new human work ecosystem.

Van Ton Quinlivan: That’s a great story and very helpful to enlighten us on how to visualize work in the future.  Jamie, you said that for us humans, work matters. Tell us more about the Gallup Poll results that studied what people get the most out of their work?

Jamie Merisotis: Yes, so there’s many years of Gallup Poll research that essentially says most workers say that having both real meaning and financial stability in their work is really key to their happiness and their life satisfaction. Now, I want to be clear here: people need and want to make money. It’s a very important part of who you are and what you do. But the Gallup survey says something really interesting and it’s consistent over time, which is that enjoying their day-to-day work, having stable and predictable pay and having a sense of purpose each rate more highly than level of pay. That is true even among workers in the bottom 20 percent, the bottom quintile, of incomes.

I think that’s really important because what it says is that serving others and having that meaning and purpose that I was talking about earlier is really important. So that’s why I say work matters not just to us as individuals, but in terms of who we impact through our work. I talk in the book about this idea that human work is this virtuous cycle. It’s learning, it’s earning and it’s serving. But these are not cycles that happen in discrete time periods. They’re ongoing. So there’s not a learning phase, an earning phase and a serving phase. You do them all at the same time. They coexist and they have to be part of that virtuous cycle of constant renewal and re-engagement that I think is key to our efforts as human workers.

Van Ton Quinlivan: I understand the concept of meaning and purpose and wanting to have that in my work. Let’s talk about the other concept, though, stability. How do you find stability in a moment in time when a lot of jobs are getting gigged and fragmented? How do people who work on movies, for example, get their insurance? Are we missing some social structures that can offset the rising instability of work associated with the next economy?

Jamie Merisotis: I think we are. And of course, you have more expertise on this than I do, Van, but I have some ideas that I think are really important for us to sort of think about. Because you’re absolutely right. I’m not a big fan, by the way, of the word gig worker because I think it’s a very narrowing framing for what’s happening. We’ve had people doing independent contracting for a long time. Technology has created new types of quote-unquote, gig work. People talk about the Uber drivers, or what have you. But I think this issue of getting health insurance, being able to contribute to retirement accounts, things like that are very important and we traditionally have gotten them through work.

We need to develop new social support and new social impact tools, some of which I mentioned earlier on the education side. But, things like worker co-ops I think are a really interesting idea that we should explore more where the workers own the business and they participate in the financial success on the basis of their contributions to the cooperative. Being able to take your benefits from one employer to another is really important. Right? We have these very limited tools from a retirement perspective…you’ve got some sort of plan and you can take it and you have to convert it to an IRA and it’s a really complicated thing. Being able to take it from one employer to another, or being able to set up these portable benefit plans where you have this set up and it doesn’t matter who you work for, you’re able to get the employer to contribute or to match to it and you make your own contributions is really important.

I’m a big fan of different ways in which you can think about portable education benefits. Lifelong learning accounts is an idea that’s been around a long time. It’s essentially a three-legged stool. You’ve got employers, you’ve got employees, and you’ve got the government and sometimes foundations. The employers can make a contribution to the lifelong learning account. The employee can do that. The employer gets increased productivity and improved employee retention out of it. The employee gets a lot in terms of the advancement of their knowledge, skills and abilities…their talent that I’ve been talking about. Government gets something out of it as well, which is that government gets to use this as another tool in the social support toolbox that I think is really important in order to ensure that people have this lifelong opportunity to be successful in work and in life. So those kinds of efforts that you’re talking about, about being certain that we can develop new social structures and tools, I think are very important.

Van Ton Quinlivan: I do see them as the next frontier of experimentation here in workforce. Let’s talk about continuous learning, or what you refer to in your book as lifelong or “wide learning.” We know the old model of getting your education up front just one time is no longer valid. Learning is like a loop. You have to come back many times to skill up, and you’ve got to come back for your booster shots. So, my question to you is actually, who pays? Because there appears to be three pocket books: the pocket book of the public, the employer and the individual. How do you think about these three pocket books when it comes to wide learning or lifelong learning?

Jamie Merisotis: Well, I want to underscore your point about wide learning and I love your pandemic-induced phrase “booster shots.” I think that’s a really a valuable way to think about it. I’ll go back to this idea of machines can learn, right? They do this thing called deep learning, where they drill down further and further into algorithms, into larger and more comprehensive data sets. But as humans, we learn in a different way…what I call wide learning: wide in time, wide in people and wide in content. The notion that people have to learn in a wide time context over the course of your entire lifetime, I think it’s really important. It’s essential to this idea of human work and what I’ve been talking about in terms of that virtuous cycle. It’s not that you do it once early in life. You have to do it over and over and over again. It’s got to be wide and obviously, we have to serve a diverse population of people in terms of their race, their ethnicity, their immigration status, their gender, and a host of other factors. Human workers have to represent us, the totality of society, for all of us to share in the benefits of their human work. Obviously, that third dimension of wide learning is the content.

So, who pays for that, I think, is fundamentally important at this point in our history, because I’ll go back to what I said at the very beginning: if there’s a rising demand for talent, we’ve got to figure out how to deliver it in the most efficient way at the lowest possible cost. The model that we have now does not work. It is too expensive, it takes too long and it doesn’t provide the kind of equity that we need in the system. We need an entirely new framework for thinking about the question that came up in the late 60s and early 70s, “who pays, who benefits and who should pay?” Here I think we’ve got to recognize that there are substantial public benefits from what’s happening when people learn. We understand what those are.

People not only earn more money, but they contribute back to society in so many ways — in terms of their volunteering, their civic participation, their ability to pay taxes, all of those things. Employers and individuals also benefit. But over time we’ve shifted more and more of the responsibility to the individual when it’s really shared benefits and shared outcomes that come from this talent development system. So, I think that we need a rethink about the three-legged stool of the public and the employers and the individual.

I continue to think that the American model, where we require individual contribution, is a good one, but the problem is we went way overboard. We asked people to pay too much. We indebted them in unfathomable ways. I’m not sure that it was ever the plan, but it is clearly the outcome that a substantial number of people have too much debt. It impacts their decision whether to go, where to go and what they do after they go. And to me, that model needs to change. But this is where I think the opportunity for foundations, and now new opportunities because of government, need to come together and to be talking about these big opportunities about solving the “who pays” questions. As I said, I’m in favor of doubling the Pell Grant. I’m in favor of these new approaches at the federal level. But what is the state role? How does the state role change? What’s the role of employers? Should employers be encouraged to do more or held accountable for doing more? And what do we expect individuals to pay compared to the way that we’re doing it now, which is so much of it is through loans.

Van Ton Quinlivan: Well, let’s end with one final provocation. What does the fear of change, fear of “the other” and preference for authoritarianism have to do with our level of education?

Jamie Merisotis: Well, it’s a great time to be talking about authoritarianism. When I wrote the book — and as you know, a substantial part is about authoritarianism — one of the reasons that I wrote about it is that I think we’ve got these existential threats. Climate change is one of them, racial injustice is clearly one, and authoritarianism is one. If we don’t address these existential threats, our ability to prosper in liberal democratic environments where diversity of expression and belief and the ways of living that it’s designed to protect will not occur. What we’ve seen, both in the U.S. and around the world, is a rise in authoritarianism. That’s clear. Why? Well, I think it’s because the authoritarians like conformity and they like to stoke fear. As you said, it’s fear of change, or of advantage, or of “the other”. And, you know, we’ve seen this sort of being reinforced.

These information bubbles that took place with COVID, took place with why terrorists stormed the U.S. Capitol…false information is a really important part of what happens to reinforce the tendencies of the authoritarians. Who does that most impact? It most impacts people with lower levels of education. That’s the connection to education. So today, a third of Americans who haven’t gone to college think that having a strong leader is good for the country and about a quarter say military rule is a good way to govern the country. The percentage of college and university grads, people who have some post-secondary credential, who support those kinds of views is a lot lower. As I said before, they’re also more likely to volunteer and vote and contribute to charity.

Education helps you cultivate critical thinking and ethical decision making and analytic reasoning and all of those other democracy-enhancing traits and capabilities that I think will combat those threats to our shared desire for freedom of opportunity and expression of ideas that’s critical to our democratic way of life. A labor economist that you and I know, Tony Carnevale, and his colleagues at the Georgetown Center on Education and Labor have done great research on this. They say, literally, support for authoritarianism falls when you increase education because education after high school provides that economic stability, and I think stronger sense of security about the future, that is critical in the environment we live in today. So that’s why we need to be talking about education and how we combat authoritarianism and these other existential threats in the modern era.

Van Ton Quinlivan: Thank you for explaining the connections and thank you very much, Jamie, for being with us today and making us think broadly about the impact of education.

Jamie Merisotis: Thank you, Van. Thank you for having me and thank you for your leadership. It’s very important to the future of our country.

Van Ton Quinlivan: I’m Van Ton-Quinlivan with Futuro Health. Thanks for checking out this episode of WorkforceRx. I hope you will join us again as we continue to explore how to create a future-focused workforce in America.