Meat of the Matter: Robots to the Rescue?

Several major studies have projected that the near future will witness a significant impact from robotic systems to artificial intelligence to computer-controlled machinery on American workforce.

For instance, an analysis recently published in Governing magazine found strong evidence that robots and automation will soon be taking over factory floors, performing hospitality jobs, becoming ubiquitous in the casinos of Las Vegas. Even Silicon Valley worries about automation’s effects, although they likely won’t be as severe there as elsewhere.

For example:

·         About 65% of the jobs in the Las Vegas area —servers, food preparers and cashiers — are susceptible to significant “automatability.”

·         A University of Oxford study identified retail sales as the category with the single largest number of job displacements, noting that the New York City area alone employs more than 500,000 retail salespersons and cashiers.

·         The Oxford study also predicted that low-wage foodservice jobs will be subject to drastic change in both the United States and overseas, noting that robots will start delivering Domino’s pizza orders in Hamburg, Germany, this summer.

·         A report from Brookings Institution reviewed hundreds of U.S. occupations. It found that middle-class, white-collar jobs — office clerks, customer service representatives, data collecting and accounting staff — are significantly liable to automation and the advance of digital processing systems.

·         A labor market analysis by PricewaterhouseCoopers concluded that 38% of all American jobs are at “high risk” of automation by the early 2030s.

·         A recent McKinsey Global Institute study projected that around one quarter of the activities of attorneys and physicians were deemed potentially “automatable,” a word that we’d better get used to reading.

Variable Projections

So much for the bad news, or at least, the sobering news.

There is some good news.

In general, there is uncertainty among experts about whether automation will eliminate more jobs than it creates. In the past, new production technologies and automated industrialization haven’t triggered higher unemployment over time. As “old school” jobs, such as assembly line work, are lost, new jobs servicing new automated systems emerge.

You may not be familiar with “mechatronics,” but it’s a growing field in which hundreds of thousands of trained workers will be needed in the next decade. Mechatronics is basically a job category involving the calibration, maintenance and servicing of automated, computer-controlled processing systems and equipment.

Likewise, high-tech centers, such as Silicon Valley in California and Durham-Chapel Hill area in North Carolina, are less susceptible to automation. Likewise, urban areas with highly educated workforces, such as Washington, D.C., or Boston, also have fewer jobs that are vulnerable to displacement by robotics or automation.

Regional economies relying heavily on education and healthcare will also be less prone to automation because jobs requiring a high degree of human interaction are considered to be more resilient.

Another positive sign: State workforce boards are using labor market data divisions to project which occupations will see growing demand; and in numerous states, apprenticeship programs are expanding from traditional blue-collar trades to health care, finance and high tech.

However, what might be the most encouraging trend was articulated by Mark Muro, the Brookings Institution’s senior fellow and the director of policy at the organization’s Metropolitan Policy Program. He argued that physical jobs that are more complex, or more personalized, may actually be less vulnerable to automation than routine office jobs.

“Lower skill but physical occupations seem quite durable,” Muro told Governing.

I would contend that many jobs in farming fit that description, with one caveat: most of the tasks and responsibilities involved in livestock production and meatpacking and processing are not “low-skilled” jobs.

So it seems that, for the foreseeable future, anyway, robots won’t be taking over the business of animal agriculture.

For all the men and women in those noble professions, that may be a blessing.

Or a curse, depending on your perspective.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.


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