What We're Learning About Displaced Workers and Their Needs

Man in mask looking out the window

Globalization and automation continue to signal concerns for a significant portion of the American workforce by decreasing the demand for labor in specific occupations and industries. These changes in demand have led a significant number of workers to become displaced and struggle to find new employment. For example, between January 2017 and December 2019, about 461,000 workers who had held their job for at least three years were displaced from the manufacturing industry alone. Now, in the aftermath of the global COVID-19 pandemic and the growing reach of artificial intelligence, the risk of displacement is expanding.

The PROMISE Center team reviewed research reports, academic studies, and other materials to identify the current state of the evidence on displaced workers and programs aiming to serve them, with a specific focus on how displacement differentially affects communities of color. Read the landscape review.

To overcome these struggles, displaced workers may need different kinds of supports than workers who become unemployed for other reasons. For example, they may need help translating their existing skills and experience to other occupations or careers. While there has been significant work over the last two decades to expand supports for this population, there is a great deal of variation in how local areas implement these services. As a result, much remains unknown about the best ways to help displaced workers get back on their feet.

AIR’s PROMISE Center conducted a landscape review to identify workforce system approaches that better support displaced workers and evidence on the effectiveness of these strategies, as well as provide suggestions for future research and practice. This research has begun to surface a number of key themes, three of which we highlight here.

  • Displaced workers can spend significant lengths of time in unemployment. Black workers have historically been disproportionately affected by displacement as they are often among the first to be fired during economic contractions and are reemployed at significantly lower rates than white, Asian, and Latino workers. Displaced female workers exit the labor force at higher rates than displaced male workers.
  • The global pandemic and the proliferation of artificial intelligence have been a new, driving factor for displacement in recent years. As a result, displacement has expanded to threaten workers in industries previously unaffected by displacement, such as the information industry. Highly educated workers may also be more at risk of displacement than before.
  • There has been much federal investment aimed at supporting displaced workers, but programs typically are not tailored to displaced workers’ specific needs and often resemble those for the general unemployed population. Re-employment programs need to be reactive to individual needs, especially as the types of workers exposed to displacement change with time.

Moving forward, we hope to explore how new innovations, such as skills-based assessments that can identify specific skill sets and challenges, might support more tailored instructional models for displaced workers. We are exploring potential models as part of PROMISE’s partnership with Year Up, a sectoral program that has been effective at helping unemployed and underemployed individuals obtain jobs in high-wage, high-demand fields.

Elizabeth Rutschow
Managing Researcher and Acting Director, PROMISE Center
Headshot Kyle Neering
Image of Scott Davis
Principal Economist