It’s simply inescapable. Everywhere you go, any industry you observe, something will in some way be automated. Check-out lanes in grocery stores are now mostly “self-checkout” lanes, postal workers are being replaced with mail-sorting machines, and you’ll almost always get connected to a machine first when calling any national business like CVS. Just the other day I saw a commercial for Domino’s new driverless delivery, Nuro, now being tested out in Houston, Texas. Even when touring a local sawmill for my Forestry Industries class, our tour guide pointed out with pride that their computer scanners did a much better job grading lumber than human graders ever could.
The rise of Automation is usually seen as a good thing — if pointed out at all. While automated everything definitely makes me feel like I’m living in the 21st century, is it really a good thing? How many jobs are truly lost to automation? And what do we do about it?
The last two questions should be much easier to answer due to a lack of subjectivity. Honestly though, there were a lot of statistics to sift through when trying to put an exact number on how many jobs have been lost to automation so far. Because automation has been on the rise for decades now, there doesn’t seem to be a statistic for jobs lost across all industries.
Instead, it was much easier to look at industries separately. Manufacturing seems to be one of the industries hit the hardest. According to the Washington Post, “Since 1980, the number of U.S. manufacturing workers has shrunk by a third, to about 13 million, while output doubled.”
Further dividing manufacturing into smaller sections, the automobile industry is the top user of robots, with 38% of its workforce consisting of automation. Peter Dizkies with the MIT News Office goes on to say that the next automation heavy industries are “electronics (15 percent), the plastics and chemical industry (10 percent), and metals manufacturers (7 percent).”
In more general terms, MIT professor Daren Acemoglu reports that, “With our preferred specification, our estimates imply that one more robot per thousand workers reduces the aggregate employment-to-population ratio by about 0.2 percentage points and wages by about 0.42%” in his paper “Robots and Jobs: Evidence from U.S Labor Markets’’ (this estimate refers to how robots affect the population as a whole).
The general consensus is that so far, although the robots are here to stay, they haven’t displaced too much of the workforce. Yet. The predictions for the future, however, do not fill me with hope.
The Boston Consulting Group cites that global robot use in manufacturing industries will jump from 10% to 25% by 2025, while a study by McKinsey & Company predicts that 75 million to 375 million people will have to look for new jobs by 2030. The BBC predicts (in 2030) robots will do 20 million of those jobs for factories. While the job losses to robots in the manufacturing sector don’t come as a shock, some of the other jobs vulnerable to automation were not what I was expecting.
According to an Oxford study, some of the jobs most at risk for automation are jobs in transportation/logistics, office/administration work, manufacturing, and people in the service industry. The job at the highest risk was telemarketing. While these statistics didn’t surprise me so much, some of the other high-risk jobs truly shocked me. Embalmers were 54% likely to become automated, massage therapists were also 54% likely, costume attendants were 61% likely, and librarians were 65% likely. I’m simply puzzled when I think about how those types of jobs could successfully be automated. As a forestry major, I was also not pleased to see that tree trimmers/pruners, logging equipment operators, and forest conservation workers had a 77%, 79%, and 87% chance of being automated, respectively.
Despite my fears of job loss, I was sure that there must be some good that comes from all this automation, besides the ‘tremendous increase in company productivity — benefitting mostly those already high up the corporate ladder. One of the most obvious benefits (for us common folk) is the automation of dangerous jobs. Currently, logging is the most dangerous job in America. While operating logging equipment is dangerous, many of the injuries and fatalities in the logging industry stem from the use of chainsaws in more northern parts of the country. Fallers had (76%) chance of being automated in the next few decades though, and if that comes true it seems reasonable that the number of people that die due to chainsaw accidents will also go down. The second most dangerous job in America is fishing, which has an 83% chance of being automated. Finally, the fourth most dangerous job is roofing, which has a 90% chance of being automated. Even setting aside fatalities, humans in the manufacturing industry often struggle with injuries as a result of working with heavy machinery and carpal tunnel syndrome. Machines don’t have these problems.
Besides safety, other benefits to automation include the role automation plays in improving product quality (computer scanning really does do a better job grading lumber), and the role automation can potentially play in shortening the workweek and decreasing the cost of goods and services. But, do these benefits really matter if a large portion of the population is out of work? The World Economic Forum assures us that even though we risk losing 75 million jobs, 133 million new roles will be created. These new jobs are expected to be easier physically and higher-paying than the jobs lost; according to the World Economic Forum some of the jobs that will be high in demand in 2025 will be “software and applications developers” and “process automation specialists”. What is often left out of such statistics is the fact that many of the people slated to lose jobs to automation are ‘unskilled’ workers (e.g. usually not college-educated), while many of the jobs created by automation will require ‘skilled’ workers.
So what can be done to shield yourself from the robot uprising? Anyone reading this article in the ABAC paper is probably already on the right track. While there are many occupations at risk of automation that are done mainly by college-educated people, non-college-educated people seem to be more at risk.
Furthermore, the jobs supposedly safe from automation are jobs requiring social skills, cognitive thinking, and creativity, so it might be wise to focus on expanding your skillset to include better proficiency in human-on-human interactions. It also might be wise to familiarize yourself with technology. The Guardian reports that many jobs won’t be fully eliminated by automation, but rather altered by it, so employees that can improve the efficiency of their AI counterparts may become even more desirable to employers in the future. Despite claims that the robot apocalypse is at least a decade off, for now, I think I’ll be checking out those free coding tutorials on Khan Academy and sleeping with one eye open.