Job Threats

September 8, 2019

by Steve Stofka

The greater threat to your job – automation or other workers? For thousands of years people have stored their human capital in writing. In some cultures, only a privileged few were allowed access to these “secrets.” The invention of the printing press in the 15th century caused massive unemployment among monks and scribes who copied treasured books by hand.

No, that didn’t happen. Demand for books, particularly the Bible, added many jobs. A symbiosis of knowledge exploded through Europe and parts of Asia. In the network of knowledge, the sciences flourished. The mathematics of chance and the development of calculus spawned the birth of modern physics in Newton’s Principia Mathematica. In the following centuries came the understanding of air and other gases, the physics of fire, electromagnetism and the very structure of stuff. All this human capital was written down in words and equations written in a single language called mathematics.

Books could hold and display the knowledge but couldn’t make the calculations. All that changed when the computer was invented in the mid-20th century. Dancing on pathways etched on silicon circuit boards, electrons simulated the calculations that the human brain had learned.

After defeat by IBM’s Deep Blue chess computer in 1996 (he won the first game), Garry Kasparov realized that computers could become human partners. Crude mechanical computers had automated some tasks during the the 19th and 20th centuries. Now they were ready for some of the tasks of knowledge workers like lawyers (Note #1). Some clerical tasks in the practice of law have been automated but there is still much that relies on judgment gained through experience and “je ne sais quoi” – the subtle weighing of multiple factors that are difficult to write algorithms for.

Thirty years ago, a grocery clerk had to be good at arithmetic – able to multiply four apples times 89 cents per apple and punch in the total on older cash registers. Clerks who could do those calculations quickly and accurately were paid good money.

An accounting clerk in a finance office had to know what calculations to do to get a loan payoff, or to calculate how much credit to extend to a customer. Today a clerk with much less knowledge and training can tab from box to box on a screen and enters the data that the program asks for. Natural language processing is rapidly making even that obsolete. A clerk will simply be able to ask a program a question and it will compute the answer or ask for more information if needed. We used to have to give Google the formula to compute the volume of a sphere. No longer. Ask “what is the volume of a sphere with a radius of 2?” Each year more human capital is being transformed into technology capital.

Some are concerned about the number of jobs that will be lost to automation. The development of the Cotton Gin in the early years of the nineteenth century reduced the number of workers needed to harvest an acre of cotton. Did plantation owners tell their slaves “I don’t need your services any longer?” No. They devoted more acres to the growing of cotton and the demand for slave labor increased.

A few years earlier before the cotton gin, the invention of the Loom greatly improved the efficiency of garment workers. Manufacturers reduced prices of some finished goods, the demand for silk and cotton soared, and employment in the industry grew.

The invention of primitive computers in the middle of the 20th century should have put arithmeticians out of business. Instead the demand increased for people who could do the more difficult or time-consuming computations. Careful but relatively unskilled people could punch in data on a punch card and the computer would tabulate the results. In the 1960s, the demand for business data dramatically increased.

Those in technical professions like lawyers and doctors lobby to protect their jobs not from automation but from other people who could do portions of their job.  In some states, a dental technician cannot fill a cavity. In some states, routine tasks can be performed by a paralegal with less training. They also command lower salaries. In other states, those tasks have to be carried out by a lawyer or with the active supervision of a lawyer.

Some areas of the country are based on a monoculture, an industry that dominates the local economy. The leaders in those industries exert a lot of political influence. A fundamental shift happens when one monoculture competes with another. Many coal workers may be convinced that former President Obama killed the coal industry with burdensome regulations. In 1979, the rock group The Buggles sang “Video Killed the Radio Star;” a similar shift has happened to the coal industry. The surge in lower cost natural gas supplies killed the coal industry. North Dakota against West Virginia and Wyoming. The coal industry’s leaders had less political influence and could not push back against the regulators.

In the 1990s, checkers at Albertson’s went on strike to protest the adoption of scanning technology and UPC codes that were first developed in the 1970s. They were concerned that the store chain would begin hiring lower-paid workers who simply had to pass a grocery item over a scanning screen.

Technological change displaces one type of worker with another type. Millions of workers are doing jobs today that didn’t exist 50 years ago because of technological change. I was at a get-together a few months ago and spoke with a woman who was a social media manager. That’s a job. As the growth of social media has exploded around the world, thousands of new jobs have been created. In the past two decades, programmers have automated some coding. Programmers who could not adapt did lose their jobs but many more jobs were created for those with different or more complicated skills.

What can’t be automated -so far – is people taking care of people. The fact that these are some of the lowest paid professions speaks to the values of our society. Companies pay paltry wages to the people who take care of our parents and grandparents. Those jobs cannot be automated to any great degree. It’s possible that some company will develop a robot that can help an older person into a bathtub or shower, but the process requires many delicate decisions, patience and empathy.

In monoculture economies around the country, some worry that unauthorized immigrants will take lower paying jobs from Americans. Immigrants are more willing to move for a job than Americans. In a county dominated by oil, gas, coal, mining, agricultural or car manufacturing industries, there isn’t much variety in employment and native residents of those towns and cities have something to worry about.

For the whole country, there will not be enough people to fill many lower paying jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that jobs for home health and personal care aides will grow by 36% – rising to almost five million workers. Difficult to keep up with a growth rate far above the 7% average growth of all occupations. Employment for in-facility nursing assistants and orderlies are expected to grow by 9%. Even taking care of our pets will be more difficult – job opportunities for vet assistants are expected to grow by 19%.

If only Congress could set up an immigration program to help our hospitals, clinics, long-term care facilities and home aide programs fill these positions. If only. The H-2B visa program is for temporary jobs only and there are far too few permits issued each year (Note #3). Most of the demand for health care services comes from urban and suburban areas, whose votes have less influence in a rural state where the legislature heeds the wishes of the extractive and “ag” industries. We are not fighting the machines. We are fighting each other.



  1. Kasparov recounts that match with Deep Blue in the TED talk (transcript)
  2. BLS estimates of employment growth for health care aides
  3. 1H-2B visa program

The Line of the Idle

July 8, 2018

by Steve Stofka

It used to be easy for a horse to get a job. This week I’ll look at the workers who have been idled by a century of automation. As a counterpoint to the daily rhythms of being busy, a casual idleness helps us recharge our batteries. In an America whose moral foundations are the Protestant work ethic, a constant idleness taints a person’s character. Those who have retired after a lifetime of work are expected to stay active. Leisure time is a resource not be squandered.

The phrase “pull your weight” meant to act like a horse and contribute to the team effort. From the Revolutionary War for Independence to World War 1, horses fought bravely and earned a place of respect in American history. Many a statue portrays a general atop his brave steed. Horses helped turn America into the bread basket of the world. Then the gas engines came after their jobs. Motors took over the jobs of pulling horse drawn carriages, plows and work wagons. Thousands of horses joined the line of the idle.

Then the engines came for the jobs of the agricultural workers. In the first half of the 20th century, farm employment fell from 40% of the labor force to 20% in 1950, and is 2% today.

Then the robots came for the jobs of manufacturing workers. A 1987 BLS report found that “relatively few employees have been laid off because of technological change.” Thirty years later, the National Council on Compensation (NCCI) summarized data from several sources. “In 2016 the United States produced almost 72% more goods than in 1990, but with only about 70% of the workers.” This two-part report is a bit lengthy but a quick glance at the graphs on the first page tell the story of the decline in agricultural and manufacturing jobs. (Part 1 and Part 2) . As a percent of the labor force, agricultural jobs peaked in the late 1800s. Manufacturing employment peaked just after World War 2.

Robots help assemble the horseless carriages in the car factories. In businesses across the land, the robots now weld and lift, pick and sort, box and ship – jobs that humans had a monopoly on. The robots are now learning how to drive and to think. Almost 40% of adults, and 20% of adults in the prime of their lives now sit idle, joining the horses in pasture.

Electric motors, long chained by a cord to a wall, have broken free and are now taking the jobs of gas engines. Robots built by workers in other countries compete for the jobs of American-built robots. Now the machines are making other machines obsolete.

Forged by the Protestant work ethic, the retired generation of Boomers pursue their leisure in earnest. RV sales are at record levels and last year’s visits to national parks almost matched the record numbers of 2016. Each year there are more visits than there are people in the country (Nat’l Park Service link). This growth in recreation occurs at a time when continuing drought in the western states has put extraordinary pressure on plants and wildlife. Summer in the west is now the season of fire.

In 1900, people welcomed their idleness as a byproduct and hallmark of progress and prosperity. The idleness of prosperity looks very different from the idleness of poverty visible in many troubled countries around the world, including parts of America. Which line is longer and which line are we on?