38% of U.S. jobs could be lost to automation within 15 years

A diagnostic scan of the economy along Northern Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range turns up several problems, and several causes of those problems. But nothing has contributed to more job losses in the Iron Range economy than the improved technology and automation of the iron mining industry.

Those same changes literally saved the industry, while reducing the number of people employed in mining by more than two-thirds since 1980.

Automation isn’t done yet, however.

I’ve written about this before, specifically about automation in local mining and also the trend toward automation detected by business leaders like Mark Cuban. You’d be hard pressed to find an expert who doesn’t see dramatic change coming in the way Americans work. These changes will require tremendous adjustments to how we prepare people for work and how we maintain society when many traditional jobs are gone.

One new study seems to drive home the point. Produced by the firm PwC, the study shows that the advanced economy of the United States could lose up to 38 percent of its jobs within 15 years. Again, globalization and competition with cheap labor overseas is an entirely separate problem. Globalization might justify automation to some, but companies seem constitutionally incapable of passing up the cost savings of automation regardless.

I was sitting in my chair yesterday morning before work and nearly spewed my raisin bran when the news anchor read that statistic. There was no change in her affect. The very next story was about some new app coming out, followed by the arrival of the transport service Uber in Duluth. (Uber, by the way, has been testing self-driving cars).

The idea of 38 percent of American jobs being vulnerable to automation isn’t even that revolutionary. One could extrapolate recent trends and simply guess at a similar number.

So the question is, what do we do? What can we do to protect millions of American workers and their families who will be affected by technological advances in retail, clerical, health care, industrial, manufacturing, and transportation automation?

Well, according to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, automation currently plays no part in the economic planning of the Trump Administration.

“It’s not even on our radar screen,” said Mnuchin in an Axios interview. [It’s] 50-100 more years [away]. I’m not worried at all [about robots displacing humans in the near future,] he said, adding: “In fact I’m optimistic.”

 

Perhaps we’ll soon learn why the current government is so optimistic about automation in our daily lives?

Meantime, cars that can parallel park themselves are becoming common, which is a harbinger of the layoff of millions of truck drivers before my kids graduate from college.

Planning for this seems like a good idea, no?

Chuck Marohn and I explored the past, present, and future of job creation in our regular radio series and podcast “Dig Deep” on Northern Community Radio. If you haven’t subscribed to this podcast, produced by my friend Heidi Holtan, you really should.

Comments

  1. independant says:

    We should embrace it and grow it right here. Why not develop and grow a mining automation systems industry right here on the iron range and then sell and support those systems not only in our local mining industry but across the entire globe. We shouldn’t scare people with automation but rather prepare them to capitalize on it in our high school vocational classes and step up the electrical programs at HCC and Mesabi to support it. Wouldn’t that be a great thing to develop locally?

    • I agree completely. It would need to be the singular focus of our economic development efforts and we would need to encourage someone with capital to invest here. We have small scale examples around the Range; we need to scale them up.

      • independent says:

        Like you said Aaron there are some local success stories with companies serving the automation needs in the mining industry and beyond. You’ve got me thinking about what advantages and disadvantages the iron range would have in trying to make a push to become an industry hub. It would be a long road but what a great export that would be for the range.

        • Someone I know says the Range needs to become the “Houston of Mining.” In other words, Houston sprung up as an oil town. The Texas oil industry isn’t what it once was, but Houston is still a big oil town. The reason is become companies like Haliburton, et al, figured out a way to take what Houston knew about oil and sell that knowledge around the world. There are places that do that on the Range, but they’re very small. It could be argued that, so long as the region remains an attractive place to live, you could base mining professionals here who would sell their know-how to new mines and plants around the world, too.

    • Gerald S says:

      That is an excellent idea.

      However, to do that, we will need to produce the trained and skilled workers needed to invent, design, and build the machines that will be involved and invest in the research needed to do that. That means higher quality education at the pre-K to 12 level and much more investment in education and research at the higher ed and post grad levels. That can certainly be done. Minnesotans have done it before with efforts like the creation of the taconite industry here and the development of the medical technology industry in the Metro area. Both efforts were driven by the University of Minnesota, which is typical in that the foundation of most tech development comes from university settings, with private industry “buying in” only after the basic building blocks are in place.

      Unfortunately, the politicians currently in charge in the MN legislature and in Washington DC are choosing to go in the opposite way, cutting education in general and cutting higher ed, science, and tech spending even more aggressively.

      There is no free lunch, and if we want to benefit from breakthroughs in tech we have to spend to put the tools in place to allow those breakthroughs to occur here, not in California, Washington State, Germany, China, or Japan.

      All that should be no surprise to anyone with business experience: to make money you have to invest money.

      • Ranger47 says:

        The Tron Range had the best education system state-wide, both teachers and facilities, when I attended Greenway. When I attended Greenway, the U.S. Department of Education didn’t exist.

        I’d suggest we go back to a proven model and eliminate the 5,000 U.S. Department of Education employees along with the $70 billion they waste each year.

      • independent says:

        The money spent in the state of Minnesota on education is significant (you can thank taconite taxes for a good chunk) and is not the primary problem. As a local business owner my biggest challenge is to find people with a technical skill set. Most of us have been screwed by a well meaning group of educators who for decades now have spent too many dollars on the wrong things. Schools needs to place a renewed focus back on the industrial arts. A modern industrial arts program focused on technology and automation along with the core trade curriculums we all know.

        • Like any sector, education is subject to trends and overcorrections. As we came roaring out of the post-war years into the 1970s, people with four-year degrees were making big bucks and leaving their parents in the dust. AMERICA! So the whole system got tooled around pumping out kids with four-year degrees. Now, four-year degrees are valuable. I use mine all the time and so do many people who have one. But a four-year degree doesn’t mean much if you’re only getting it to get it, or if the market becomes oversaturated, as it can in certain fields. Meantime, as Indy points out, many people with hands-on skills retired and there became a real demand for new people who could build and repair — the same “blue collar” jobs left in the dust during the last big economic trend. So now things are correcting the other way. You’re seeing more emphasis on technical training and STEM training in the schools. (Unfortunately, so many shops and industrial programs were mothballed along the way).

          That’s all good. But as I point out in this post, we are watching our economy change. We’re always going to need technical workers to service and repair machines and systems. That’d be hard to automate. But any kind of repetitive task is in danger of being automated. So you want to train people for distinctly “human” tasks — that means fine motor stuff and thinking tasks. Some of that will be technical, and some will benefit from the traditional liberal arts education which (at one time) emphasized critical thinking.

          As far as “how things were” its true the US Dept. of Education had nothing to do with the success of the Iron Range schools after WWII. In terms of the proportion of the federal budget or education spending in general, it’s not that big a deal even now. I’m not here to argue for or against it. Schools were strong when they had the resources needed to place children on an even playing field, and when education wasn’t just a value inside the school, but outside the school as well. You can thank the immigrants for stressing that education was a ticket to a better life in America. That philosophy stuck for a long time — it wasn’t partisan — until our economy tanked and our values about education changed with the culture.

  2. Ranger47 says:

    I mentioned this automation scare to my wife…and suggested we’d better toss out both the dishwasher and microwave. She said she’d consider it if I was willing to rip out our recently installed high speed internet cable and go back to our DSL phone internet.

  3. Ranger33 says:

    As I’ve said before constantly embracing technology that is constantly and rapidly taking jobs from the Human Race is Racist! Ya Get It? We need to get back to humanity and regulate and ban certain types of technology or damn near nobody is going to have a job. The world was a lot better when there was more focus on Living Wage Jobs instead of Education. There was less debt, drugs, and problems. More people were busy working, staying out of trouble, contributing to society, and feeling worthwhile. All this technology is going to do is benefit the Rich getting richer and the middle to lower class people are go to pay for all the unemployment and crime that comes with it as they already are. You aren’t going to fix an economy or a country by embracing job taking technology. You People Better Wake Up, but I doubt it will that will ever happen!

  4. Ranger33 says:

    As I’ve said before constantly embracing technology that is constantly and rapidly taking jobs from the Human Race is Racist! Ya Get It? We need to get back to humanity and regulate and ban certain types of technology or damn near nobody is going to have a job. The world was a lot better when there was more focus on Living Wage Jobs instead of Education. There was less debt, drugs, and problems. More people were busy working, staying out of trouble, contributing to society, and feeling worthwhile. All this technology is going to do is benefit the Rich getting richer and the middle to lower class people are go to pay for all the unemployment and crime that comes with it as they already are. You aren’t going to fix an economy or a country by embracing job taking technology. You People Better Wake Up, but I doubt that will ever happen!

  5. Ranger33 says:

    More Technology = Less Jobs and Higher Taxes

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