Lisa Katz| Crain’s Detroit Blog

News articles, surveys, researchers, and even employers have had the technology-uprising mantra on repeat for several years running. Will technology replace jobs traditionally held by people? If so, when will this happen?

In truth, technologies have replaced jobs held by humans for several centuries running. Through the ages this includes the wheel, the steam engine, farming equipment that harvests produce and bundles hay, machines that builds things, computers that can trade stocks, and the list goes on with examples from the dawn of civilization to modern times. Technology is the double-edged sword that makes workers both more productive AND threatens jobs. Remember the Luddites? The textile artisans who were replaced by lower-skilled workers because of new textile loom technology? This term is still used today and shows that the “technology-taking-jobs issue” is not by any means a new one.

An NBC News article from 2012 listed nine jobs that humans would soon lose to robots. The jobs highlighted by the article include: pharmacists, lawyers and paralegals, drivers, store clerks, astronauts, soldiers, babysitters, rescuers, and sportswriters and other reporters.

While the evidence for using robots to complete the above list of jobs is compelling, further thinking may be required as to the feasibility of this.

First, the data: How have these jobs changed in the past two years in Southeast Michigan? What is at risk? The accompanying graphic shows occupational employment for select occupations noted in the NBS News article.

The answer is “not much.” Employment has not changed for these occupations in the past two years. With most occupations growing very slightly (6 percent% or less) and a few (childcare workers and pharmacists) declining 2.5 percent or less, employment looks to be stable.

Now to investigate the logic behind a few of these jobs being replaced by robots.

Pharmacists. Pharmacists fill prescriptions but they also work directly with patients to ensure that a patient understands the medicine and potential interactions. Ever waited in a really long line just to pick up your meds? Well, if a robot were doing the prescription fills then the pharmacist could spend more time with each patient and spend more time manning the check-out for people picking up meds. This sounds like it will make things more productive, not take away too many jobs.

Next, babysitters. Would anyone really leave their toddler with a machine over their neighborhood babysitter? Probably not realistic in the near future. What is more is that most childcare workers work in daycare centers, many of which must be certified by outside agencies. The legal implications of replacing a human with a robot in this setting does not bode well for the robots.

Finally, drivers. This could be a threat to taxi drivers, truck drivers, limo drivers, and private chauffeurs all around. What if the trucking business were run on its own without having to hire drivers? On the one hand this may be a positive for the transportation industry. Employers have been scrambling to find enough truck drivers for years but the interest in this job in the workforce just is not there. Robot drivers might save the U.S. trucking industry.

But think about it.  When are driverless vehicles actually going to take over the roads? A few things need to happen first:  Not only does the general public need to embrace and trust this technology to have it sweep away jobs for drivers but each state has to pass laws that allow these cars and trucks on the roads. According to Center for Internet and Society, only four states and the District of Columbia have passed laws allowing automated driving (California, Nevada, Michigan and Florida).  Not surprisingly, these also are the states where labs are testing the new technology. But bills are still being debated in ten states and seven others have had bills allowing autonomous vehicles fail.

In another spin on the technology-takeover, a CareerBuilder survey highlighted in Forbes found that 68 percent of employers surveyed who had replaced employees with technology actually created new positions as a result. This is the productivity argument. The workforce needs to adapt, just like it did when the cotton-gin was invented and when computers replaced type-writers.

The age-old question of the technology takeover is continuously debated. Will it mean the end of jobs for everyone? It is time that we found out what Michigan’s employers really think about technological change and its effects on the workforce.

Preliminary results from WIN’s Eureka Project survey show that employers in Michigan believe technology changes will:

  1. Increase the need for workers, especially those WITH technology training and skills
  2. Increase collaboration on work teams and between managers and workers
  3. Make workers MORE productive and increase the number of hours worked per employee
  4. Increase the formal education needed for workers to succeed

What do you think? Take the survey here. Your opinions could influence how we train your business’s future workers.

This blog post was prepared with research and content from Colby Spencer-Cesaro, director for research, Workforce Intelligence Network.

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