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May 9 2017

Automation Coming to a City near You

by Patrice L. Onwuka

The strong April jobs report was another welcome sign that the economy is creating jobs. For areas that were hard-hit by the recession and have struggled to regain their footing, the consistent job growth means a strengthened tax base and steady spenders in the local economy. However, longer-term changes, which will require adjustments, are on the horizon as we consider the acceleration of automation and its effect on the workforce.

New analysis provides us a snapshot of how metropolitan areas may be most affected as robots are poised to automate jobs. Many metropolitan cities could lose more than 60 percent of their jobs. Las Vegas (65.2 percent), El Paso, TX (63.9 percent), Riverside-SanBernadino-Ontario, CA (63.9 percent) represent the top three areas where jobs are at risk of automation. Greensboro-High Point, NC (62.5 percent), and North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton, FL ( 62.4 percent) on the East Coast round out the top five areas. The Orlando-Kissimmee area of Florida will also be hard hit at nearly 62 percent as will two other metro areas in California: Bakersfield (62.4 percent) and Fresno (61.9 percent).

The study maps data from a seminal 2013 Oxford study (that that found nearly half of American jobs are at risk of automation) onto employment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for 100 metropolitan areas in the U.S.

Fast Company reports comments from the researchers:

“What we’re seeing is this wave of automation is going to specifically affect the less educated,” Moenius says. “There are lots and lots of them. Possibilities that we’ve thought about in recent years are now hitting the range where they become economically feasible. It’s just so incredibly fast, and it’s affecting so many jobs at a time.”

Just because the technology exists doesn’t guarantee that it will be adopted, but the map looks at what is possible. “We have to be very clear, being at risk of automation doesn’t mean that a job necessarily gets automated,” he says. “I can’t imagine that we suddenly have all poker dealers or all waiters suddenly replaced by robots. High-end restaurants will still have waiters because that’s part of the experience. But this tells you what’s the technical possibility. And specifically on the lower end of the food chain, whatever’s going to be possible to get automated, will get automated.”

By lower-end of the food chain, he’s talking about low-skilled jobs that can be replicated by a machine because they are repetitious and don’t require much personal creativity, reasoning, or interaction. Three categories of jobs make up about half of the possible job losses in metro areas: office and administrative support, food preparation and serving, and sales-related jobs such as retail.

Before freaking out over automation and calling for a limits to tech development to protect jobs, the researchers caution that probability of automation does not equal future unemployment rates: 

Technical feasibility does not imply that automation necessarily makes economic sense. And historically, automation went hand in hand with new job creation both in skilled and less skilled labor,” explains Dr. Chen. “However, the speed and the high share of automation in less skilled jobs raises many questions about whether the economy will be able to make up for the expected job losses. What we do expect is that automation will create winners and losers among cities and regions of the U.S., where losers may not recover to their original employment levels within even a decade’s time.”

This is a good reminder that, while technology may automate some jobs from fast food workers to truck drivers, it will create entirely new positions and industries that have yet to even be developed. The role of public policy should not be to speed up the displacement of workers because of short-sided policies like arbitrary minimum wage increases to so-called “living wages.” It should rather be to ensure Americans have access to the educational opportunities and tools they need to stay competitive.

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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