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Aspen Dispatch: An Uncertain Future for Low-Wage Workers

The unemployment rate is at its lowest level in nearly six years. Services like Uber and TaskRabbit are providing new, Internet-enabled ways for people to work for themselves. Yet a recent discussion about “The Future of Work” at a major technology conference this week elicited concerns about a future bifurcation in the nation’s workforce, and potential troubles for lower-skilled workers unable to make it in a rapidly changing employment landscape.

“We’re in the middle of a very long shift from the labor economy to the knowledge economy,” said Robert Hohman, CEO of jobs website Glassdoor, during the panel at the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen, Colo. The transition “is going to be pretty bumpy,” he said.

Spencer Rascoff, CEO of online real-estate company Zillow, was more blunt: He worries about a new, two-tiered economy in which some people can afford convenient services like Uber and TaskRabbit to save time, while lower-paid Americans will work for those companies and “drive them around.”

The news isn’t all bad. Though many union-wage jobs are disappearing, they are being replaced with some higher-tech jobs that didn’t exist before; that’s the nature of technological change, from the advent of the telephone to the rise of cloud computing. The question is whether enough people can access those new jobs to achieve class mobility, as many lower-skilled Americans were able to do in the past, said Mark Siegel, a managing director at Menlo Ventures. Better education programs and help from the private sector is essential for retraining, panelists said.

Others heralded the benefits of flexible jobs offered by companies like LiveOps, which hires call-center workers who work at home, and Uber and Lyft, which turn people into on-demand, car-service drivers.

“This is the age of empowering people,” declared Sandra Kurtzig, CEO of Kenandy, a cloud software company. New-age, flexible jobs “are giving time back to you to spend with your family,” in addition to other benefits, she said. One venture capitalist in the audience called the trend “micro-entrepreneurship”, saying people can now cobble enough work together through non-traditional, task-oriented companies. Others in the room, however, warned that it’s difficult—and requires a high level of sophistication—to create full-time, stable salaries from jobs on sites like TaskRabbit.

But are more educated workers at risk, too? Glassdoor’s Hohman disagreed: “I don’t believe that computers, or robots, can replace creativity,” he said.

The work panel was one of several held at the invite-only Fortune conference, which also drew big-name speakers including Cisco’s John Chambers, Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, Box’s Aaron Levie and CBS’s Les Moonves, among others. Battery Ventures companies attending included Glassdoor; Gainsight; Platfora; 6Sense; StellaService; Gogobot; HotelTonight; Platfora; and Marketo, which was a sponsor.

Rebecca Buckman

Rebecca is Battery's vice president of communications and content.

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