VISION 2024 | Can AI tools fill the gap between population loss and productivity demands?

February 26, 2024, By Russ O'Reilly, Tribune Democrat

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – Gross domestic product isn’t just about the value of final goods and services produced in a locality. It relates to social progress and quality of life.

Late last year, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis released 2022 GDP information for counties and metropolitan areas.

The BEA’s previous report had shown that Bedford County’s economic production grew more than any other Pennsylvania county’s from 2020 to 2021, rising 14.5%. Its leading industry was manufacturing, which increased its total GDP by 5.6%.

The new report on growth from 2021 to 2022 shows that Bedford County’s GDP growth held steady, just slightly decreasing by 0.1% to $1.47 billion, adjusted for inflation.

However, the county’s rank for percentage growth in the state dropped from No. 1 to No. 37. The No. 1 spot for GDP percentage growth was taken by Sullivan County in 2022.

Cambria County’s GDP in chained dollars – a inflation-adjusted measure allowing the comparison of dollar amounts from year to year – for 2022 was $4.6 billion, down by 0.4% from 2021. It ranked 44th among Pennsylvania’s 67 counties for growth.

For Somerset County, the GDP in 2022 rose 0.6%, above $2.3 billion. Its GDP growth rank among the state’s counties was No. 27.

Goodwill of the Southern Alleghenies President and CEO Bradley Burger has pored over more long-term data and drawn correlations between GDP and population, and between GDP per capita and quality of life.

Goodwill Industries International is a nonprofit that may be best known for its thrift stores, but it’s primarily a provider of job training and employment placement services.

As a practitioner in workforce development, much of Burger’s focus has been on productivity.

“If you track the number of employed persons versus GDP, there’s a very high relationship,” he said, “but when you get down to the county level, there’s a different story to be told.”

In the Southern Alleghenies region – Cambria, Somerset, Bedford, Blair, Fulton and Huntingdon counties – GDP increased regionally by 1% from 2005 to 2021, while GDP statewide increased 20%. At the same time, most of the six counties in the region saw their numbers of employed persons decrease.

Counties with larger populations naturally have higher GDPs overall, but what Burger found interesting when looking at the GDP data for counties, including Cambria, Bedford and Somerset, was the GDP growth per capita, even as population declines.

“The good part here is that even though some counties lost GDP, they did it disproportionately to the amount of employed person loss,” he said, “so basically, they still – per employed person – gained GDP.”

The distance between GDP and population loss was made up by productivity increase.

“Right now,” Burger said, “what you are seeing is a stretch of growth – employers and businesses trying to grow at the same time the regional population continues to go down.”

His research echoes employers who talked about workforce shortages over the past few years.

“It’s producing great tension right now,” he said. “That tension has to resolve itself. The way it will resolve itself is either employers adopt technology to help smooth it out, or we’ve reached our peak, where we can’t grow anymore; that is an alternative.

“Or we put more people into the mix. That’s it. You have limited alternatives.”

Artificial intelligence tools are being adopted partly because of that tension, he said.

“Employers are saying, ‘I need to adopt this,’ and it’s not to displace someone,” he said. “It’s to help the individuals they have employed, to make it easier on them – or there’s just a hole in their staffing, and they need a piece of technology to help.”

Positive quality-of-life outcomes can result despite the challenge of population loss, he said.

“There’s a direct relationship between GDP per capita and quality of life,” he said. “So we want quality of life.”

Burger is a proponent of using real GDP data per employed person as the metric for economic and workforce development efforts. Looking at GDP per employed person, he said, mitigates the impact on real GDP due to fewer people.

“Being that there are fewer workers, every employee will have to be more productive,” he said.

Goodwill is encouraging employers to invest in automation and efficiency technology, not to displace employees, but to ensure they don’t burn out, to make their job easier and to retain them.

“A decoupling is occurring between GDP and the amount of employed persons,” he said. “If you don’t want to pull down disproportionately on GDP, then you have to give the humans you have better tools to do their job in order to push against that.”

Goodwill has its own virtual intelligence worker, an AI model that speaks through a smartphone.

It is trained to conduct structured interviews with organizations in the region and give suggestions on low-cost technology that can help retain their workforces and lay out a roadmap for teaching new skills for new jobs, if needed.

At his office in Windber, Burger called up the AI worker on his phone. It has a name – Kai.

“Can you give some examples of questions you would ask an organization during an interview?” Burger said.

The AI model answered: “Certainly. One question would be, ‘Can you describe any specific tasks or processes in your organization that you believe could benefit from automation?’

“Another question would be, ‘Are there any repetitive or time-consuming tasks that employees frequently perform which you think could be automated to free up their time for more strategic activities?’ ”

Goodwill has only begun using Kai to help organizations implement automation of all types, perhaps including their own AI models.

“One of the reasons we are using AI for that is that we want to have a consistent experience for each of the employers we work with across the region, to make sure the quality is there,” Burger said. “If a staff worker takes Kai with them, it creates a very consistent experience for employers we are working with.”

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