There is an ongoing debate about the extent to which automation will impact the American workforce, one that dates back to at least 2013, when two Oxford University professors concluded that 47 percent of U.S. jobs would fall by the wayside as a result of technology.
A year later, nearly 1,900 tech experts were surveyed about the future of work. Forty-eight percent were of the opinion that robots would displace many workers, while 52 percent said automation would create more jobs than it eliminated. The latter conclusion has been supported in two subsequent studies, one by Gartner in 2017 and the other by the World Economic Forum in 2018. The first surmised that the U.S. would see a net gain of 500,000 jobs by 2020 — i.e., 2.3 million created, 1.8 million lost — while the second foresaw a gain of 58 million worldwide by 2022.
More recently — in January 2019, to be precise — the Brookings Institution issued a report that reached conclusions similar to those of the Oxford professors. The biggest is that one-quarter of the American workforce, some 36 million people, faces “high exposure” to automation, meaning that machines would be able to do at least 70 percent of their jobs.
The only thing that can be said with certainty is that every job will be impacted — that they will either disappear or be revamped to a certain degree by technology. (McKinsey estimated that 30 percent of the activities in 60 percent of the occupations will be automated.) And as jobs are reinvented, workers will be forced to reinvent themselves.
It is expected, for instance, that certain occupations in the food service and hospitality industries — cooks, waitresses, hotel desk clerks — will evaporate, and that short-haul truck drivers will be displaced by autonomous vehicles. According to the World Economic Forum report, jobs in data entry, payroll and accounting are also in peril, as are those that involve physical labor. The same report deduced that there will be an increased demand for data analysts, software developers, social media specialists and occupations that involve personal interaction, such as those in sales, marketing, innovation and customer service.
These shifts in the workforce have increased the need for retraining and upskilling the rank and file. But as Brookings noted, employer-supported training was on the wane between 1996 and 2008, the last year data was collected. Moreover, the U.S. in 2016 devoted just .11 percent of its GDP to Active Labor Market Policies, which are geared toward training workers. That’s down from .26 percent in 1985, and less than every industrialized country other than Mexico.
Brookings suggested that policymakers would do well to incentivize businesses to institute training programs, possibly with a human development tax credit. But the larger point made by Brookings is that the U.S. needs to get ahead of the technological curve — that it needs to step things up on the AI/Big Data/supercomputing front. Falling further behind an autocratic state like China, the institution said, is not a promising global scenario.
Brookings further recommended that policymakers enact means to protect workers who might be forced to take lower paying jobs in the face of automation, and that those same policymakers foster the shift to a tech-based economy in small cities and rural areas, which figure to be impacted the most by such a change.
But the biggest burden falls on their workers themselves, and whether they will be adroit enough to negotiate a career path permanently altered by automation.