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January 24 2017

Getting American Workers Ready for Automation’s Coming Shake-Up

Patrice L. Onwuka

On his way out of office, former President Obama said something right about jobs in the American economy: automation is big threat.

During his final interview, he warned about the way technology is eliminating jobs for American workers:

“The fact is, and the data just shows this, the jobs that are going away are primarily going away because of automation and that’s going to accelerate,” Obama said. Uber Technology Inc.’s driverless car programs and the “equivalent displacement that’s going to take place in office buildings around the country is going to be scary for folks,” he added.

Politics aside, Obama has a point and one that’s shared by conservatives such as Wilbur Ross, the nominee for Secretary of Commerce. During his confirmation hearing Ross talked about driverless trucks and the effects they could have on the industry:

“Driverless cars are probably a very good thing, they seem to be an inevitable thing but that presumably will lead to driverless trucks,” he said. “There’s something like 3 million American adults who depend on over-the-road trucks for their livelihood, and it’s a pretty good livelihood. And you also have the shorter trip drivers as well. So I think what we have to do is to figure out how to make sure to get the benefits of the improved technologies and yet cope with the dislocation that it inevitably will produce.”

Truck drivers are a hot topic lately after tech company Uber bought Otto, a self-driving truck startup, and successfully delivered its first commercial cargo delivery (50,000 Budweiser beers) without a driver behind the wheel last October. Self-driving trucks may still need a human being in the cabinet to quickly handle any tech mishaps, but as the technology matures the need will disappear. It’s foreseeable that the next couple decades will deliver a major blow to the 1.8 million heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers currently on the roads. These are jobs that carry good median wages and don’t require a four-year degree.

Truck drivers aren’t the only American workers on the roads whose careers are uncertain as technology continues to evolve in amazing ways. Ride-hailing services that rely on women and men to shuttle complete strangers around in their own vehicles should also be aware. Companies like Uber that brought us these great flexible earning opportunities are at the same time trying to develop driverless cars for their ride-hailing services. Uber is test-piloting self-driving cars in Pittsburgh and Arizona.

We’re in an exciting time as we watch technology continue to improve our lives with cheaper, faster, and better goods and services. Efficiency can come at the cost of opportunities and jobs for those who need it but in the long run innovation is likely to lead to new jobs in new industries.

Let’s not be Chicken Little about it though, or worse, stand by and watch policymakers speed up the process of automation by forcing policies on employers that make workers costly to retain and robots attractive replacements. In the same interview, President Obama pointed to progressive solutions of unionization and higher minimum wages as the way to save jobs. That’s exactly wrong.

Being creative and thinking now about the careers that are immune from automation is the right way to approach this. Cheaper products put more money in the pockets of shoppers and families that stimulate the economy in other ways according to some tech experts. That in turn, will create jobs in those industries. Just what are those jobs?

Marco Zappacosta, head of the on-demand company ThumbTack which allows you to find strangers willing to do tasks that you don’t have time or ability to do such as catering your wedding and hanging artwork, points to jobs that are non-routine and can’t to be automated:

"It's going to happen, and that will have a much more dramatic impact on the industry than any law ever could," he said.

“When it comes to fixing your plumbing or tutoring your kid in math or catering your wedding, there's no way around the fact that the pro needs to be there," he said.

Technology is a savior in many ways, not the villain that some paint it. We just have to find ways to work with technology rather against it, because either way innovation won’t be stopped.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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