On those rare occasions when the current presidential race deals with policy rather than personalities, the focus tends to be on trade and immigration. Yet there is a potentially much greater threat to the well-being of U.S. workers that is receiving little attention: the technology revolution.
Corporations such as Apple and Facebook promote the idea that digital technology is enriching our lives. In some ways it has: it is easier than ever to keep in touch with far-flung friends and acquaintances, to purchase a vast array of products, to access an endless variety of music and video, and much more.
Yet one thing the tech industry has failed at miserably is giving people opportunities to make a decent living. A front-page article in the Wall Street Journal presents the dismal facts: The tech industry has enriched its investors but does little for the U.S. workforce. In fact, the Journal points out, domestic employment in the computer and electronics hardware industry has fallen nearly 50 percent since the beginning of the century, while the much smaller software workforce has seen only modest increases.
More evidence can be found in a report on data centers just published by my Good Jobs First colleague Kasia Tarczynska. It shows that these facilities, which make up what is known as the cloud, each create only a few dozen jobs. Yet state and local officials, desperate to show they are doing something to encourage employment growth, shower tech giants with subsidies that average nearly $2 million per job.
One tech company that has been hiring a lot is Amazon, which has doubled its workforce (to more than 200,000) over the past couple of years while creating the distribution network necessary for rapid delivery. There are two problems, however. The first is that most of these new positions are lousy warehouse jobs. Amazon has developed a reputation for brutal working conditions — and is aggressively fighting unionization. The second is that many of these jobs will not last for long. Amazon is investing heavily in automation, including the purchase of Kiva Systems, a firm specializing in warehouse robotics. And it continues to experiment with drones designed to replace UPS drivers.
Not only is the tech industry failing to create many jobs in its own operations, but it also is on the verge of destroying large numbers of positions in other sectors. The prime example is the rush toward self-driving vehicles. While there has been some (probably not enough) debate on safety, little has been said about the employment impacts. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, some 9.5 million people work in occupations relating to transportation and material moving. A substantial portion of these — especially truck, bus and taxi drivers — are threatened by the rush to autonomous vehicles.
After being decimated by offshoring, the U.S. manufacturing sector has been recovering, but as a consequence of digital technology and robotics today’s plants require far fewer warm bodies.
Advances in artificial intelligence mean that automation-induced job loss will not be limited to blue collar occupations. Even the professions are not immune.
The tension between technological progress and the needs of workers is, of course, an old story. Yet one lesson never seems to sink in: society needs to prepare for the upheaval and make sure that there is a just transition for the workers who are displaced.