The coronavirus pandemic has had a swift and devastating impact on jobs, companies, and entire industries: the U.S. has lost 15.2 million jobs since February, with unemployment rates now standing at 13.3%. Stimulus checks offer short-term financial relief to some, but by no means will they create a booming economy. Unease is bound to persist about the economy, the health of our loved ones, and whether our work and home lives will return to their pre-COVID ways anytime soon, even as states open up for business and life in the U.S. edges back toward the “old normal.”
Let’s not settle for going back to normal. For many, it wasn’t that good to begin with.
A new, “better normal” is possible. As governments respond to the immediate crisis and rebuild our jobs market, let’s not limit our response to the coronavirus alone. Let’s take this moment as an opportunity to rebuild a more resilient and sustainable economy for all.
How do we do this? Policymakers can create programs to help laid-off workers transfer from declining, carbon-intensive industries into sustainable, growing industries where their skills can be put to use. This will not only help unemployed workers, but it will also stimulate our economy and help the U.S. transition to a sustainable future.
This analysis uses California as a working model to show how economies everywhere can transition to this future.
Mapping job losses today to the jobs of the future
Many of the jobs of the future are in the bioeconomy, the segment of the economy that uses renewable resources to make food, energy, and goods with biology. At its core, making things with biology is akin to the age-old process of using bacteria or yeast to convert one thing into another, the process called fermentation.
We’re all familiar with fermentation: it’s what makes bread, cheese, beer, and wine. Using advanced biology, we can now coax organisms to ferment anything from foods and plastics to nylons and medicines. And instead of depending on petroleum chemistry to make things, fermentation uses sugars and renewable sources of carbon such as agricultural plant waste and industrial carbon emissions as its building blocks.
The bioeconomy is expected to reach $4 trillion globally, and switching to this more sustainable bio-based economy is going to require millions of skilled workers. Many people who are suffering from job loss today have skills that are directly transferable to sectors of the bioeconomy. So rather than propping up jobs in industries that were in decline prior to COVID-19, governments can create incentives to help transition skilled workers into more resilient industries that are better for the economy and the environment.
You may be asking yourself, “Is it really that easy to transfer skills from one industry to another?” Research from MIT’s Skillscape project shows that the set of skills, abilities, knowledge of a worker directly influence their opportunities for career mobility. And although two positions may seem very different, the required skills can be much alike, and transferable. Using the skills transfer framework of Skillscape, the hardest-hit jobs in California can be mapped onto possible new roles in the bioeconomy. Here are eight sectors that could be positively transformed:
Not all of the 1.6 million jobs listed above are going to be remade in the bioeconomy. But research shows that some industries have a big multiplier effect, meaning that for every job created, there are a number of indirect jobs created to support that sector. In scientific R&D, it’s estimated that for every 100 jobs created, there are a whopping 842 more jobs created in other sectors. So investing in job creation in the bioeconomy isn’t just about people in white lab coats. It’s about supporting the entire economy.
Manufacturing sectors hit hard by COVID, ready to be transformed by biology
Data from the state of Washington (which publishes its figures earlier and in greater detail than most) shows that within the manufacturing industry itself, apparel manufacturing had the highest percentage of jobs lost since the coronavirus struck—over 60% of that industry’s workforce. Transportation equipment manufacturing shed about 40% of its workforce, amounting to nearly 40,000 jobs lost, the most of any sub-sector. Food manufacturing lost the second most jobs and shed about a quarter of its workforce. Each of these manufacturing industries are primed to be revitalized with biology.
Apparel. The fashion industry is second only to the oil industry in the amount of pollution it makes. As consumers demand more sustainable products, biotech companies are reinventing the fashion industry by introducing innovative materials and production methods. They need the kind of skilled workers whose jobs have gone away due to coronavirus.
Ecovative, for example, has a biomanufacturing platform that can make synthetic leather (or packaging material, or bacon) from biology. MycoWorks also grows 100% biodegradable “leather” from fungi and agricultural byproducts. Genomatica recently announced a method for producing bio-based nylon, a $10 billion market for making shoes, spandex, carpets and more. Bolt Threads is developing ways to mass-produce spider silk, a naturally occurring supermaterial that can be processed into different formats, including 3D structures. Modern Meadow is tapping into nature’s toolkit to create biologically advanced materials like biofabricated leather fermented from yeast. Biotech companies like Colorifix, Tinctorium, and Pili are on the front lines of replacing the chemically intensive methods of dyeing clothes with environmentally friendly methods based on biology.
Transportation. You might think that the transportation industry and synthetic biology are two completely different industries. But the synthetic biology industry is expanding to supply the materials of the future for our cars, trucks, and planes. And workers with skills not so different from automotive workers will be needed in those biomanufacturing facilities.
An example is the Japan-based synthetic biology company Spiber. Like Bolt Threads above, Spiber is also brewing spider silk, a material with about the same strength as carbon fiber but with 40 times the toughness. Together with Bridgestone and utilizing its Brewed Protein™ materials, Spiber developed a bio-based foam for car seats that is thinner and lighter than polyurethane but has the same comfort properties.
Spiber is putting the finishing touches on a new biomanufacturing facility in Thailand. Why couldn’t the next factory be in Stockton, Philadelphia, or Detroit?
Food. Synthetic biology is a big part of our food system already. Companies such as Amyris, Finless Foods, and Impossible Foods are using biology to make our food better and healthier with natural sweeteners, cultured seafood, and plant-based meat.
And now, there are companies that are even on the brink of making food from thin air. As these companies grow, there will be a demand for skilled workers from conventional food manufacturing areas.
From surviving to thriving
While the coronavirus has impacted many sectors, others are growing. The workers affected by job losses have skills that can provide high-quality jobs and also benefit growing sectors in the bioeconomy. In doing so, we can support a more resilient and sustainable economy.
Whether or not there is a pandemic creating an immediate crisis for our businesses and economy, we must ultimately face the reality that technological advancements, automation, and AI will have a big impact on many of these same sectors of the economy. So it is imperative that we transfer these skills and workforce into the industries of the future so that they are not lost.
California’s early action on the coronavirus saved lives and untold costs. If our leaders can take a similarly proactively approach to invest in shifting our workforce into the jobs of the future, the benefit to people, the economy, and the environment will be grand.
Follow me on Twitter at @johncumbers and @synbiobeta. Subscribe to my weekly newsletters in synthetic biology. Thank you to Stephanie Michelsen, Mark Bunger, and Kevin Costa for additional research and reporting in this article. I’m the founder of SynBioBeta, and some of the companies that I write about—including Ecovative and Spiber—are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference and weekly digest. Here’s the full list of SynBioBeta sponsors.0