Don’t let automation tomorrow distract from pay today

December 12, 2018 5:28 am
robots eating all the jobs

CC0 Creative Commons

As you may have heard, horrifying studies say Las Vegas is one of the most likely places in the solar system for automation to replace oodles and oodles of jobs. Because jobs in hotels and travel and food service are among those most likely to be automated.

For example, a famous study from Oxford researchers a few years ago that said up to half the jobs in Las Vegas could be robotted right out of existence by the early 2030s. Pricewaterhouse Coopers followed up by predicting automation will all but eliminate retail jobs (the second largest occupation in Nevada, after food service & accommodations).

Not to be outdone, the expert-texperts at McKinsey Global Institute almost exactly one year ago informed Las Vegans that as many as 65 percent(!) of the jobs around here will be automated away by 2035.

So it’s all pretty scary, and heavens to Betsy whatever will we do?

Automation threatens jobs. Can education create new ones?” the PBS NewsHour asked in a package last week.

The answer: Yes!

Seriously, did you expect some other answer? From PBS?

The NewsHour cited (yet) another study predicting upward of 6 out of ten jobs getting automated into thin air – this time in California’s Inland Empire, where the economy “is dominated by industries that could be heavily automated in the future: fast-food restaurants, office and administrative services, and crucially, distribution centers.”

Another tax break for Amazon, stat!

The research also shows “that education is the key factor” that will make a difference between gainful employment, on the one hand, and, on the other, replacement by Roomba.

And then PBS turns to an expert from a hot employment field in its own right, workforce development. (Reports that there are more people working in workforce development than workers who have benefited from workforce development could not be confirmed as of this article’s publication.)

“Somebody has to repair and maintain the robotic arms and anything that has to do with automation,” Sandra Sisco of something called the Industrial Technical Learning Center (because of course it is) told PBS.

All of this will sound familiar to Nevadans, who have repeatedly been told about the importance of preparing for the exciting jobs of the future. Occasionally the nudge acknowledges there will always be a need for plumbers and electricians and carpenters and such, so maybe learn to do that. But as a rule, policymakers and the workforce development industrial complex tout the sexy techy jobs. Because, you know, the future. Learn how to design, build and/or fix a self-service checkout machine instead of getting replaced by one, and Bob’s your uncle, the looming automation-driven employment displacement crisis is solved. For you, anyway.

But what about everybody else?

Some people will benefit from new jobs created through technological-industrial transformation, all Schumpeterian creative-destruction like. But if the studies are anywhere close to accurate, there aren’t going to be near as many jobs created in automation repair and maintenance as will be lost in food service and retail. 

On the bright side, sort of, the care and feeding of robots is not the only type of employment projected to grow in an otherwise automation-ravaged workscape. Not all tasks, you see, lend themselves to automation.

The jobs projected to grow in far larger numbers than tech maintenance are in fields that undergo, as the McKinsey study puts, the “marketization of previously unpaid work.”

In other words, child care, and senior care.

On the less than bright side, pay, benefits and conditions in those jobs typically suck.

Not all researchers agree with the scary robots-will-eat-all-the-jobs scenarios that get the headlines. The International Organization for Economic Cooperation Development estimates only 9 percent of U.S. jobs are vulnerable to automation, a conclusion based on the premise that jobs usually considered ripe for automation are also jobs where there is a lot of face-to-face time with customers, so… maybe not so much, robotics-wise.

Or as the McKinsey study puts it, in the course of hedging some of its own bets, “Technical feasibility does not imply that automation necessarily makes economic sense.”

I confess I’m something of an automation skeptic. Or maybe just a futurist skeptic. Seriously, we were told there would be flying cars. Where are the flying cars? (And no, Amazon drones delivering socks that say “If You Can Read This Bring Me Some Wine” on the bottom are not the same as flying cars.)

That said, while we were being promised flying cars, we were not being told about the phone that is not only an entertainment center and a global navigation system receiver but also provides instant touchscreen access to the sum total of human knowledge, and that this wizardry would fit in your pocket.

The fact is that despite the studies and the projections and the headlines, we do not know what the future will bring. (As evidence of how unexpectedly things can turn out, I used to point to O.J. in the white Bronco. Now of course, like everyone else, I point at Trump.)

We do know that automation is already upon us. Ask the Culinary. Or the nice lady who used to work at the now-abandoned checkout counter at (insert grocery/big box store of your choice here). And while it may not transform the economy and the labor market as profoundly, and horrifyingly, as the studies suggest, automation is going to leave a mark. So there are worse ideas than learning how to calibrate the robotic arms in the Soylent Green factory.

But in the meantime, before robots eat all the jobs, we still have humans, in jobs. And some of them, like the aforementioned senior care workers, are already filling one of the fastest growing occupations in the workforce. Automation is a threat, or maybe a promise (generously shared prosperity in a post-scarcity world, anyone?). What automation should not be is yet another distraction from the need to improve wages and working conditions in the jobs we have now, jobs that, according to even the most alarming studies, we will still have for many years to come.

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Hugh Jackson
Hugh Jackson

Hugh Jackson was editor of the Las Vegas Business Press, senior editor at the Las Vegas CityLife weekly newspaper, daily political commentator on the Las Vegas NBC affiliate, and author of the Las Vegas Gleaner political blog. Prior to moving to Las Vegas, he was a reporter and editor at the Casper (Wyoming) Star-Tribune.