Prepare to be automated out of a job

robotIsn’t there a civic responsibility to plan for massive dislocation?

What should we do if we knew that, in the near future, a large sector of our country’s workers, currently employed with good-paying jobs, would be put out of work by new technologies? Would we ban the new technology to save those jobs? Or, do the scientific breakthroughs and related increases in growth and productivity outweigh the job-loss negatives?

These questions are not theoretical. Thomas Friedman explores these issues and others in his 2016 book, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations. And a December 2015 study by the McKinsey Global Institute found that the US economy is only reaching 18 percent of its “digital potential.”

The McKinsey report projects that “about half the activities people are paid almost $15 trillion in wages to do in the global economy have the potential to be automated by adapting currently demonstrated technology. While less than 5 percent of all occupations can be currently automated, about 60 percent have at least 30 percent of constituent activities that could be automated. ”

Going forward, McKinsey projects, more occupations will change than will be eliminated through automation. Even a 4-year-old study done at the University of Oxford’s Martin School “estimates that 47 percent of jobs in the US are ‘at risk’ of being automated in the next 20 years.”

As the studies illustrate, it is very clear that technological advances are now coming faster and faster and starting to supplant even white collar skills.

Take, for example, the potential impact of autonomous vehicles. In the US, there are 3.5 million professional truck drivers, in addition to all of the drivers for mass transit, local deliveries, taxis, etc. One out of every 15 workers in the country is employed or associated with the transportation industry. Clearly, the impact of this new technology could be devastating to a large part of the nation’s workforce and their families.

If these disruptive technologies keep probing for efficiencies in our economic system and accelerate the obsolescence of certain classes of workers, isn’t there a civic responsibility to prepare for that inevitability? Living in a world reminiscent of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of positivism, where it is the survival of the fittest and “tough luck” to anyone else, is not going to sit well with the millions of the soon-to-be-unemployed Americans.

“When the rate of change eventually exceeds the ability to adapt, you get dislocation – when the whole environment is being altered so quickly that everyone starts to feel they can’t keep up,” Friedman writes in his book. “There is a mismatch between the change in the pace of change and our ability to develop the learning system, training systems, management systems, social safety nets, and government regulations that would enable citizens to get the most out of these accelerations and cushion their worst impacts. This mismatch is at the center of much of the turmoil roiling politics and society today.”

Bill Galston from The Brookings Institution suggests that many of the displaced workers have not been able to find new jobs that pay as much as the previous ones, with wages dropping an average of 40 percent when they do find a new job.

Eric Teller, CEO of Google X Research stated, “We certainly don’t want to slow down technological progress or abandon regulation. The only adequate response is that we try to increase our society’s ability to adapt.” For workers going forward, the only way to retain a lifelong working capacity is to engage in lifelong learning.

Governments (federal and state) are going to have to do better in two areas. First, they will have to provide a much improved “safety net” for the unemployed.  There will be more of the unemployed and these workers will be out of work for a much longer period of time. It will certainly take longer to find a comparable job that meets the worker’s skills (with fewer of these jobs available). And it will take longer for the worker to get additional training to qualify for those jobs that are available.

I suggest that we need a new system of wage insurance to minimize the negative effects of extended unemployment. The system would provide workers going through a training program with supplemental wages over what they would be currently receiving to give them time to be retrained for a higher-paying job.

Secondly, the US will need to adapt its institutions and training pathways to help workers acquire new skills.  The nation’s educational system and job training programs have not been sufficiently agile to respond to the needs of those businesses that are expanding and hiring. Even a college degree is not sufficient to guarantee a new job in the new economy. New online training modules that can be adapted and adjusted in short order will be needed to fine tune a prospect’s skill set to match a company’s requirements.

According to Friedman, the new workplace employers will value workers who can demonstrate the needed abilities for the job. These employers will need to provide multiple avenues for lifelong learning that are priced right, available on demand, and seamlessly responsive to the changing needs of the workplace. They also need to be fueled by a regulatory and tax policy to assure their widespread adoption.

What is very clear is that the status quo is not an option. Government will soon have to acknowledge that one of the greatest threats to our society will be the wasting away of our human resources. If there is no hope for the future (a job, a family, a home) for everyone in America, then the golden age of America, as a land of opportunity for all, will be a thing of the past.

A Housing Plan That Works

The business community is generally a bit skeptical when it comes to grand plans to cure critical deficiencies in the marketplace. One of the most pressing problems for Boston, and many other major cities around the country, is the lack of affordable housing and the inflationary pressures on existing housing stock. In 2014, Mayor Marty Walsh commissioned a new housing plan to confront the city’s problem of a population growth outpacing its production of housing.

The plan that resulted set a target of 53,000 new housing units to help rebalance the market and decrease the pressure on rents and housing prices in the city’s older (and more affordable) housing stock.

Through a cross department plan allowing for streamlined and expedited permitting, expanding the offerings of city-owned real estate, promoting innovation in housing production, and adding significant resources to housing production, the city has worked collaboratively with the development community to achieve real, measurable success.

Through December 2016, nearly 20,000 units were either completed or in construction. Over 21,000 units are currently in the permitting process. Housing unit completions have finally outpaced the city’s population growth.

Has the housing plan worked? For the first time in many years, rents in older units decreased or stabilized in the neighborhoods with the most new development in the past 5 years. The sharpest decreases were with studios and one bedrooms, with two bedroom units seeing modest decreases and three bedrooms rents stabilizing.

It is a serious challenge to develop a program to create new affordable, work-force housing without deep subsidies. However, we can now see that producing new market rate units can actually dampen the inflationary trends for the existing older housing stock. As long as the city can continue to work closely with the development community to keep the housing pipeline flowing, we may be able to keep Boston accessible to everyone.

Immigration is a major driver of our economy

immigrationOn Friday, President Trump signed an executive order on immigration and refugees. It establishes federal travel restrictions stopping the issuance of visas to Syrian nationals, suspends all immigration from seven Muslim-majority Middle Eastern countries for 90 days, and extending the ban to citizens of those countries who hold U.S. visas or green cards.

There has been limited impact of this Executive Order on the real estate industry in Massachusetts. That said, besides the obvious humanitarian crisis that this only exacerbates, our region is dependent on, and benefits greatly from, the diverse immigration into our schools and industries. Our domestic population has never been able to fully meet the demands of our growing businesses, with almost every economic boom fueled by immigration.

Historically, refugees have contributed greatly to our Commonwealth. They are an integral part of our engine of innovation, working for our local companies and, in many cases, starting their own businesses, hiring many of our young, skilled resident talent.

We encourage the Trump administration to reconsider this abrupt change in policy.

My Top Ten Predictions for 2017

2017

2016 has been another great year for the commercial real estate industry.

Can we keep it going through 2017?  Here are my predictions for the coming year:

  1. Cap rates will finally start to rise in the Boston/Cambridge markets.
  2. A new Fortune 500 corporate HQ will relocate to Boston.
  3. Apartment construction starts will drop in downtown Boston.
  4. The Dow Jones Industrials will finish the year down.
  5. Fed interest rates will be raised twice.
  6. Foreign investment will increase as a percentage of total CRE sales in Boston.
  7. There will be a noticeable business migration from 495 to 128, 128 to Boston, and Cambridge to Boston.
  8. Drones will pilot consumer product delivery.
  9. An infrastructure bill will pass Congress and be signed by the President.
  10. No viable candidate will step forward to run against Mayor Walsh.

Bonus prediction:  Patriots will win the Super Bowl (I’ll be right this time!)

Below were my predictions for 2016. Okay, I blew the Patriots, but 2017 is a new year!

  1. Neither casino (Springfield and Everett) will get their final clearances and will certainly not start construction.
  2. The Fed will make another move up in the interest rates.
  3. Foreign investment will dominate investments in commercial properties in the Greater Boston area, but local buyers will still be the major high-end condo buyer.
  4. The Green Line extension will be redesigned at a lower projected cost and will move forward.
  5. Some Boston or Cambridge office leases will hit $90 PSF gross.
  6. The Northern Avenue Bridge will be approved to accommodate vehicular access.
  7. A major office lease will be penned for either of the spec Seaport buildings (Pier 4 or 121 Seaport Boulevard).
  8. A developer will be selected for the Winthrop Square garage site.
  9. Patriots win the Super Bowl!
  10. The Republican presidential convention will not reach consensus on the first 5 ballots.

Boston Business Leaders React After Trump Election Victory

This originally appeared as part of Boston Business Journal’s article, Boston business leaders react after Trump election victory, on November 9, 2016.

white-houseWe talked to a wide variety of Boston-area business leaders to understand what the surprising victory of billionaire businessman Donald J. Trump means to them and business in general.

From David Begelfer, CEO, NAIOP Massachusetts:

The election of Donald Trump as President was a surprise to most business leaders, whether they were Democrat or Republican. If there is one thing that business does not like, it is uncertainty.  With a Trump campaign based on sound bites, no one really knows what to expect with respect to his choice of advisors and cabinet members, policies, and international agreements.

That said, one can assume that there will be a fairly quick move to propose tax cuts (and possible tax reforms) and to attack the regulatory environment. For business, in general, and real estate, in particular, it is likely that the recent effort to increase capital gains and go after “carried interest” will be replaced by a plan to reduce corporate income tax rates, eliminate the corporate alternative minimum tax, and ensure the immediate deductibility of capital expenses.

It is not unreasonable to assume that the Trump administration will focus on the EPA and potentially curb some of its oversight and regulation. Areas that could see relaxation may include climate change and stormwater. Also, energy exploration, drilling (e.g. fracking), and pipeline expansion could be encouraged.

There is no question that any changes to trade or immigration policies would affect the New England economy. The region’s economic growth has fed off a very successful set of trade agreements. In addition, the growth of jobs in the region has relied upon a strong flow of immigrants into the area.  If, as promised, the current trade agreements are in question and if immigration is further restricted, we could see a serious impact on the region’s future growth.

Finally, given that the support of the Republican-controlled House & Senate will be needed to accomplish anything beyond Executive Orders, it will be interesting to see how he is able to work with a divided party.

Massachusetts Adopts New Energy Code & Stretch Energy Code

The Board of Building Regulations and Standards (BBRS) voted in July to adopt several changes to the energy provisions of the existing building code (8th edition). The BBRS adopted the next edition of the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC 2015) as the base energy code in non-stretch code communities and adopted a new stretch energy code (approximately 15% more energy efficient than the current base energy code), which will automatically take effect in existing stretch code communities without a vote by the city or town.

NAIOP was pleased that the BBRS did not advance the solar rooftop readiness or electric vehicle readiness requirements that had been proposed (and opposed by NAIOP), but disappointed that a new stretch energy code was adopted.

A concurrency period will run from August 12, 2016 – January 1, 2017 which allows persons seeking building permits to submit plans and other required documents that conform to either the energy provisions in effect prior to August 12, 2016, or the amended energy provisions effective August 12, 2016, but not a combination of the two. Beginning January 2, 2017, all building permits and submitted documents must conform to the amended energy provisions only.

Public hearings on the next (9th) edition of the building and energy codes are expected this fall. NAIOP will continue to advocate on behalf of the industry on these important issues.

Federal “Tenant Star” Report Promotes Energy Efficiency in “Next Gen” Commercial Leased Spaces

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) just published its Energy Efficiency in Tenant Leased Spaces feasibility study that highlights both opportunities and barriers to implementing energy efficient technologies in multi-tenant commercial spaces.

The study was required by Congress as a part of the Energy Efficiency “Tenant Star” legislation that was passed into law last April. The hope is that this voluntary program will encourage higher energy performance in leased spaces in commercial buildings. Market driven branding incentives have worked well with building owners through the voluntary Energy Star program. Now, this program will attempt to motivate building tenants to increase their energy efficiencies and reduce their energy consumption.

The DOE study finds that “American businesses can occupy more energy-efficient spaces that help improve their bottom line, attract and retain the best workers, and increase their competitiveness.” About half of commercial real estate is occupied by tenants, who could directly benefit from greater energy efficiency. The study further finds that tenant space can be built to save 10-40% energy compared to a typical space.

The study also examined the persistent problem of a lack of energy data. It was determined that a significant increase in sub-metering of tenant spaces would help overcome this barrier. Another persistent problem is the “split-incentive” issue between owners and tenants, with owners paying for the improvements and the tenants benefitting. Accelerated 15-year depreciation of leasehold improvements, can potentially provide real estate owners with greater certainty to undertake property improvements over the typical lease term and economic life of those assets (7-10 years).

Furthermore, the DOE report also encouraged the creation of a federal tenant space recognition system, similar to Energy Star.

The real estate community is supportive of these voluntary, market driven programs that have already shown tremendous results across the country.