Much has been written about the effect that technology has on jobs. While some (myself included) have seen our careers benefit immensely from the march of technological progress, many people have not been so fortunate. I grew up in the Detroit area from the late 70s to the early 90s and even back then I remember people talking about how many workers were going to lose their jobs to machines. I was young at the time, but the fear and uncertainty was palpable and was a regular topic of discussion in households connected to the automotive industry. Companies rejoiced at the prospect of workers that never took a day off and did their jobs consistently, correctly and without complaint. Human workers had a different view. The robots were coming, an unstoppable mechanical menace that would decimate employment.
Robots vs. “Robots”
Fast forward to the present day. In the words of the immortal Yogi Berra, it feels like “deja vu all over again”. Thought leaders around the world are talking about the effect of automation on jobs, and the scope is orders of magnitude larger than it was before. The rise of AI, machine learning, natural language processing, big data, cheap sensors and compute power and other technologies has expanded the scope of technological unemployment well past the assembly line. Even jobs that were considered safe ten years ago are now witnessing at the very least a sea change in how they are done, if not outright extinction at the hands of technology. Retail jobs face threats from cashier-free stores like Amazon Go. Truck drivers are watching helplessly as Otto completed their first driverless delivery. Personal drivers such as chauffeurs, taxi drivers and ride share drivers are nervous about self driving car technologies from Uber, Waymo, Ford, GM and others. Projects like the open-source Farmbot offer a glimpse into the future of farming where seeding, watering and weeding tasks are carried out completely by machine. Even previously labor intensive tasks related to harvesting are being automated. Timber and logging are on the block as well, with robots being deployed to take down trees and handle post-harvest processing. Construction is facing automation too. We already have robots that can lay bricks faster than a human worker, and companies around the world are experimenting with 3D printing entire structures.
While the physical manifestations of technology may be the most visible, they are not the only way technology is changing the face of work. When people hear the word “robot” they usually think of a physical machine. A Terminator. An industrial robot that welds car frames. A Roomba. A self driving car. That’s only part of the story. AI doesn’t need a physical body, it can live on the internet, basically invisible until you interact with it, and still do jobs a human does today. We are already seeing this in many spaces from healthcare supplemented by IBM Watson, to fully automated AI driven translation services that in the future will handle language tasks that people do today. In short, this isn’t just a “blue collar” issue, it’s much bigger than that. Consider what happens when you can just ask Alexa, and don’t need to call a human expert for help with a problem.
Sweet Home Unemployment
What does this have to with Alabama, specifically? I had not really given much thought to the specific impact on the southeast until I first read about Futureproof Bama. These folks have a mission “to help the state of Alabama prepare for the transition period for when robotics, artificial intelligence, and other autonomous innovations will make most traditional work obsolete.“. The point was really driven home for me when I had the chance to sit down and chat with Taylor Phillips at a recent Awesome Foundation Awesome Hour event and talk automation, jobs and the future of work. Why is this of particular concern to Alabama? Will we be impacted more than other areas of the country? Well, let’s take a look.
According to usawage.com (which calculates their numbers from BLS data) there are about 1.85 million Alabamians employed as of 2015. 3.7% of them are retail cashiers. 2% are freight, stock or material movers. 1.66% are heavy truck drivers. Light truck, delivery, industrial truck and tractor operators combine to add about another 1.1%. Tellers and counter clerks are another 1% or so. Various construction trades are another couple of points, as is agriculture. I could go on, but you can read the list for yourself. It isn’t hard to tally up the affected professions on this list and get to 20-30% of the population that is squarely in the crosshairs of automation in the short term. To put this in perspective, unemployment during The Great Depression peaked at around 25%. Will Alabama fare worse than other areas? I don’t know, an extensive analysis of affected employment categories across states would be necessary to answer that question with any kind of certainty. Regardless of how Alabama stacks up to other states, it’s clear that we face a period of great change in how we view work.
Sounds grim, but you might ask “Can’t these folks just find another job?”. Maybe, maybe not. If the entire job category disappears, then no, at least not in their chosen field. Even if a job doesn’t disappear entirely, a reduction in the number of available positions in a particular industry combined with a steady or increasing number of people that want that job will result in a serious downward pressure on salary. Good for employers, bad for employees. At a minimum, we’ll have a huge number of people that will need to retrain into a different job. Even then, it’s unlikely that we’ll have enough labor demand across industries to soak up the excess supply. All of this adds up to a very big problem that will require an equally big solution. We cannot legislate automation out of existence, nor can we simply ignore the people that are left out of work.
If this concerns you, and you want to join a group of people that are working hard to get Alabama ahead of the curve, pop over to Futureproof Bama and get involved.