Forget Globalization. Worry about Automation.

Automation is taking more American jobs than Mexicans are.

Automation is destroying more American jobs than Mexicans are.

Watcha gonna do… watcha gonna do… whatcha gonna do when robots come for you?

Robots aren’t science fiction. You need to start thinking about them — and so does Virginia’s political establishment.

The 2015 Oxford automation study, “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation,” concluded that 47% of all U.S. jobs in 702 occupations are at “high risk” of decimation by automation. If it’s any consolation, an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) study found that a mere 9% of jobs are at risk. But don’t get complacent. A 2016 McKinsey study predicts that 60% of all U.S. occupations could see 30% or more of their work activities automated.

Using the same methodology as the Oxford study, Dr. James V. Koch, an Old Dominion University economist, calculates that nearly 1.9 million jobs are at risk in Virginia — about 51% of all jobs, four percentage points higher than the national average.

Seeking refuge in a college education will not necessarily save your job from robots or artificial intelligence. A hair stylist in Harrisonburg stands better chance of surviving the job carnage wrought by our robot overlords than, say, a tax preparer in Danville.

The deciding factor, says Koch in an essay in the “2016 State of the Commonwealth Report,” sponsored by the Virginia Chamber Foundation, “is the extent to which jobs require creative and and social intelligence and the ability to manipulate as opposed to being dominated by repetitive, routine tasks capable of being learned by machines fueled by artificial intelligence.”

So, in the immortal words of 19th-century Russian revolutionary Nikolai Chernyshevsky, “What is to be done?”

Writes Koch:

Wise public policies in this arena should focus on “riding the wave” of technological change rather than encouraging resistance movements that are destined to prove futile. Astutely constructed public-private partnerships between governments and firms have the potential to develop programs designed to compensate and redirect job losers, who in many cases are relatively innocent victims of dynamic economic forces beyond their control.

Koch, a former Old Dominion University president, argues the state should work to increase the skills, flexibility and mobility of the workforce. By skills, he means proficiencies that count in the marketplace. “This is not the same thing as generating massive numbers of additional bachelor’s degree holders, or STEM-degree holders,” he says. “There is relatively little rigorous economic evidence available that a significant shortage of job candidates exists in STEM-related occupations.”

By flexibility, Koch means “suppleness in thinking and approach” — critical thinking. And by mobility, “wise public policy will reduce barriers that discourage people from moving geographically and/or telecommuting to jobs that may be located thousands of miles away.”

What the empirical evidence tells us, says Koch, “is that the current range of public policies is insufficient to deal with the occupational ferment that Frey and Osborne (the authors of the Oxford study) have identified. We are forewarned.”

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12 responses to “Forget Globalization. Worry about Automation.

  1. re: ” programs designed to compensate and redirect job losers, who in many cases are relatively innocent victims of dynamic economic forces beyond their control.”

    I think the comment about what government should do to “help” is an example of people, especially Conservatives saying what we should not say – and that is expecting the govt to take care of us.

    Why is it the responsibility of govt to “help” folks who have themselves refused to do in terms of recognizing what the available jobs are , where they are and what kind of skills are needed to get those jobs? Why is that the responsibility of govt?

    At some point – it is YOUR responsibility to understand what the “market” wants for labor and expecting the govt to “help” you is an enormous slippery-slope step towards an entitlement mentality for other things – that it’s the govt responsibility to “help” and the govt’s “fault” when you lose your job and cannot find another – because you lack the skills, refuse to re-train nor want to move to where jobs are…

    instead slurp up entitlements – and, oh blame the govt while you’re slurping – then go vote for folks who say they’re going to get those “other” leeches off of entitlements.. 😉

    re: “There is relatively little rigorous economic evidence available that a significant shortage of job candidates exists in STEM-related occupations.”

    I think this is misleading… it’s not about specific jobs or job disciplines i.e. STEM – it’s about being competent in reading, writing and math to be able to think critically about solving problems and being able to work collaboratively with others to solve bigger problems – skills that form the foundation of STEM.

    STEM is an area where these skills are needed in order to be successful at STEM – but I think using the word STEM confuses what is really needed. It’s STEM …. SKILLS

    You cannot solve real world problems if you are not proficient in reading and understanding concepts and the technical aspects of those concepts. Not barely 20th century high school competent – but 21st century competent…

    For instance, you need to know more about how cell towers and cell phones work than just the fact that you can connect with your friends on Facebook. You need to understand how that computer in your hand actually works – on a conceptual level if you are going to be able to do a job that is at that or similar level of complexity – most all “good” jobs are now in the 21st century.

    you don’t learn – you don’t work or you do “menial” work.

    Robots ARE going to replace jobs of menial labor – both physical and intellectual… The jobs are what the robots cannot do.

    And no – don’t tell me that there will be no jobs left for humans to do when we have 7 billion people on earth and most of them do not have electricity, basic sanitation, health care, clean water, etc.

    • Evidently we agree on this one! Yes it’s a matter of “YOUR responsibility” to figure out where the job market is going. Koch is right, there is a role for changes in public policy to help folks prepare for (not merely respond to) this inevitable future job market — but it’s general preparedness for reading, writing and critical thinking (not a check-the-boxes set of specific courses) that is required, and lacking.

      But: how to break the cycle in so many rust belt style communities of kids growing up in households with no respect for, or support for, getting an education in critical thinking? Sure, a lot of those kids simply leave for the cities to get away from the distractions — but a lot who would like to leave, can’t — because they support a dysfunctional family strung out on drugs, or they are home taking care of unplanned children, or they are the sole caregiver for a dependant family member without medical insurance — etc., etc.. How can they prepare for a job in the automated world?

      • re: ” But: how to break the cycle in so many rust belt style communities of kids growing up in households with no respect for, or support for, getting an education in critical thinking?”

        is that a similar question to how you’d deal with inner city folks of color?

        or is NASCAR an hillbilly heroin essentially more virtuous than “gangsta” rap and crack cocaine?

        Jim and HCJ and others seem to think in the inner city – it’s bad parenting and bad teachers… and there is not a whole lot that can be done .. it’s “in the genes”… apparently

        but yes – every kid deserves a fair opportunity at an education – despite their parents !

        One could argue that as long as rust belt parents stay where they are – they are dooming their kids – pretty much the same way that inner city kids are doomed if they stay with their parents in poor neighborhoods.

        So are both of these the responsibility of govt or the parents?

    • Larry Alert! Larry Alert! Whoop! Whoop! Whoop!
      Readers beware, I do not believe what Larry says I do. I do believe that bad parenting and bad teachers are part of the problem, but to blame those two alone is a gross over-simplification.

      • yes – but do you think the same with respect to inner city and rust/coal belt or do you think they are different and if so, what the difference is?

      • re: ” So are both of these the responsibility of govt”? “both” being coal/rust belt and inner city?

        So govt is supposed to “help” the coal/rust belt folks with jobs?

        Is govt supposed to “help” the inner city folks with jobs?

  2. I don’t see this in “government” terms at all (except for government’s role in education). This is about what the jobs will be in an automated world. This WILL happen; we can’t change that! The idea of swimming against that tide, as The Donald promises, is not only a waste of money but counterproductive –all it can do at best is delay our grappling with the inadequate and inappropriate education so many of our children are receiving today, not to mention deter the investment in upgrading our domestic manufacturing infrastructure, as required to remain competitive in that future automated world. The question is simple: will we educate for tomorrow’s jobs or for yesterday’s? And concomitantly: will we confront that dead-end culture that chooses to cling to the past and denigrates its own young people who seek to escape the past, and the despair?

  3. well… no … the Donald CLEARLY blamed the govt for FAILING to preserve jobs for manufacturing and coal mining…etc. and CLEARLY said that the govt was going to get their jobs back.

    And it’s not just the Donald – Clinton and others have repeatedly promised all kind of govt goodies to “help” those who have lost their jobs.

    I’m not even sure what govt “owes” anyone beyond K-12 and certainly not subsidized tuition and all-you-can-eat loans with some promises to even forgive them – especially if you picked a bad school..

    we definitely have a “gimmie gimmie gimmie” attitude about education these days… subsidized tuition at high end colleges.. all the loans you care to go into debt for – and even some implications that loans might be forgiven.

    And what are people doing with all these goodies?

    Well – a hell of a lot of them are NOT getting education in the areas that the economy wants workers. More than a few are getting “generic” degrees that are about as usual as warts on a toad… and ..owing tens of thousands of dollars..

    others take disability – to the point where Social Security Disability is now paying out every penny it takes in with FICA.

    we have a problem.. with too many folks expecting the govt to “help” them… and I’m not talking about just the folks at the margins.. there is an overall attitude that it IS the govt’s responsibility to “provide” jobs and education.

    • I’ve never been a fan of government picking winners and losers, and I’m not a fan of the Donald’s industrial policy.

      Further, I don’t believe that it is government’s duty to “create jobs.” Government can’t create jobs. What government can and should do is create the conditions for businesses to create jobs. One of those conditions is ensuring (within fiscal limits) that Virginians have access to education and training.

      • not to be contrary – because we actually agree on major points – but the govt CAN “create” jobs with tax dollars. Whether it’s a soldier in a humvee in Afghanistan, an aircraft carrier in Hampton Roads, or a USDA meat inspector or a doctor in a VA hospital or even a doctor treating a Medicare/MedicAid patient.

        One might argue that those tax dollars “belong” to folks who earned them and that “real jobs” are “created” when someone buys a big screen TV or a new SUV or a ticket to the Redskins but their “taken” taxes also created the GPS satellite network which has, in turn, spawned millions of jobs.. and the GPS network cost just 12 billion dollars – about what we pay for ONE new aircraft carrier.

  4. re: ” “There is relatively little rigorous economic evidence available that a significant shortage of job candidates exists in STEM-related occupations.””

    ” These are the most in-demand jobs for 2016″

    developers, managers, technicians, analysts, specialists…

    these are all jobs that require good communication skills, an ability to see the process of how a product is created or a service delivered. Problem solving.. being able to analyze how things work and why they are not working – and fix them.

    so look here:

    Here are 10 skills students need to work on now to ensure their future success in STEM-related jobs.

    Critical thinking. …
    Analytical skills. …
    Problem solving. …
    Innovation. …
    Collaboration. …
    Communication. …
    Customer orientation. …

    now look back at the specific jobs that are in demand…and what STEM skills listed below are required in those specific jobs…

    the bigger question might be – what level of education teaches these things? I’d assert that a person who understands concepts and can articulate their view .. someone who understands math enough so he/she can see how it fits into real world things… etc

    I seriously doubt most kids who graduate from high school have strong skills of this type and if they shoot for generic college degrees.. they’re not going to get those skills there either.

  5. Even before Trump was elected, the bipartisan concept had emerged that the status quo 2% growth in the USA may be permanently damaging our economy due to too few jobs. We had stories in BR about the need to acquiesce to a no-job America where only the college educated elite had work.

    On the other hand cheaper energy in America brings the potential for a manufacturing renaissance of sorts, which has been hoped for, but so far is moving slowly. Thankfully Gov McAuliffe seems to get it, and Virginia seems poised to take advantage of the hoped for trend. Meanwhile a number of Trump administration appointees also seem to clued-in to the attempt make the job renaissance happen.

    I feel strongly we need more STEM jobs, and my concern has been the vilification of American industry. Why on earth would any US high school student want to get a chemistry degree when liberal arts majors blog all day about about how “dirty” industry is destroying our planet and must be banned from America? We must try to evolve to a less divisive and more “scientific” society, less motivated by hype, snake oil, and spin.

    Of course there are 2 sides to the adversarial divisiveness we are experiencing. Corporate management has been too slow to become better stewards of improved safety and environmental performance. We need a better balance .

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