Making Automation Work for Everyone
Over the past 20 years, we have seen the fastest period of technological advancement in human history. The internet has become integral to daily life, bringing us into an era of unprecedented connectedness. Technology has enabled life-saving procedures in the medical field, provided increasingly sophisticated defense capabilities to our troops, and made it possible to explore the far reaches of our solar system.
But at the same time, this technological change has also brought upheaval for American workers not seen since the Industrial Revolution. Jobs that formerly could only be done by humans are now being done entirely by machines, a trend widely referred to as automation. While automation can make businesses more efficient, it can also reduce opportunities for employment in skilled professions and displace Americans from previously secure jobs. And though robots on factory lines are nothing new, the trend is accelerating – it’s one of the most significant factors behind a decline in manufacturing employment, the loss of middle-class jobs, and a stratified workforce that leaves many workers with limited wages and benefits.
The economic costs of technological innovation can be most devastating to Americans already struggling. Automation tends to hurt those facing obstacles to getting jobs in the highest tiers of the workforce. Nearly half of workers under the age of 24 are employed in jobs likely to be impacted by automation. And, of the older Americans likely to lose their jobs to technological advancements, many do not have access to retraining programs needed to venture into other fields. Those without a bachelor’s degree are particularly vulnerable to having their jobs replaced.
In some communities across California, almost half of tasks currently performed by workers could be affected by automation. According to Johannes Moenius, an economics professor at the University of Redlands, in Riverside and San Bernardino counties that number could be as high as 63%. If we fail to address this divide, the supplanting of low-wage workers will only exacerbate inequality across the state of California and the nation.
These changes are coming, but we are not powerless to ensure that Americans can still prosper, and not just those who are already doing well. We need to rethink programs that were designed for an era when it was common to work for one company until retirement. And we need to train, and retrain, a workforce that is ready to perform the high skilled jobs of the future.
Schools and universities should provide more computer science education and internships for their students to prepare them for the changing labor market. We must also invest in quality and affordable opportunities to retrain those who are at increased risk of losing their jobs to this trend so that everyone has an opportunity to contribute to economic growth. These steps should be taken sooner rather than later to curb the growing inequality that will arise from continued advancements in technology.
America also needs an updated safety net that is built for today’s economic realities. By some estimates, 53 million Americans in 2017 generated income, at least in part, from “freelancing” on platforms like Uber, Airbnb and TaskRabbit. The reality and challenge of a freelance economy is that these workers do not receive company-sponsored benefits.
Benefit plans and employment laws are stuck firmly in the 1900s. For these freelance gigs, there is no Medicare or Social Security contribution from an employer, no health care insurance, no paid sick or family leave, and no retirement program. We need to consider significant reforms and wholly new ways of adjusting to conditions in a modern economy so that benefits are portable and flexible.
If we are to adapt to these shifts in the workforce, we must reimagine how these programs can meet the needs of workers to ensure a good quality of life for ourselves and our children. The challenges we face in the workplace of the future are daunting, but we have overcome far more wrenching changes in the past and prospered, and we will do so again.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) represents California’s 28th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.