Matt Driscoll

Pierce County is a target-rich environment for automation. That should scare us into action

The giant, white cube in Tacoma is finished. So what does it do?

Watch as a system of automated cranes and conveyor belts move packages of frozen food throughout NewCold's new cold-storage facility.
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Watch as a system of automated cranes and conveyor belts move packages of frozen food throughout NewCold's new cold-storage facility.

In its opening lines, the new report from Workforce Central calls the topic of automation — or more directly, a future where computers and technology play an increasingly prominent role in our workforce — “polarizing.”

I’m sure that’s true, with smart, passionate people arguing on either side.

Typically, however, my reaction — as a nostalgic guy who generally prefers humans over robots —doesn’t waver:

I find the idea terrifying. All of it. Plenty of studies have shown I’m not alone, with fear extending across age and job demographics.

Put another way, unlike New York mayor and democratic presidential long-shot Bill De Blasio, I don’t just want to tax robots, I want to destroy them all.

Unfortunately for me — and anyone else who might be hesitant to embrace our computer overlords — reading the entirety of WorkForce Central’s new report, for all its efforts, did little to assuage my fears.

Pierce County has a lot at stake, it turns out.

I mean, try reading this before going to bed at night:

“In Pierce County we see that 47 percent of occupations are estimated to be at a high risk of automation.”

So, why are Pierce County jobs at such a high risk?

Much of it comes down to the types of jobs Pierce County currently offers.

We’re heavy on retail, hospitality and food service jobs — all of which are at a high risk of future automation. Meanwhile, while we produce plenty of qualified job candidates in the fields, our area is light on computer, tech and white collar jobs, which are at a lesser risk.

Compared to our neighbors in both King and Thurston counties, both of which boast more of the latter, we’re in a particularly precarious position.

In fact, using estimates of automation susceptibility from the oft-cited 2017 Future of Employment Report by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne, the WorkForce Central report finds that four of our county’s top six jobs are highly susceptible to automation in the future.

Good times. Really looking forward to all the free time I have when a computer is writing this column, you guys!

But I digress …

While it’s tempting to be freaked out, and — really — only natural to be at least a little freaked out, there are steps we can take now to help ensure Pierce County is prepared for future automation, not caught on its heels.

Beyond the grim prognostication, the need to thoughtfully prepare is really where the focus of WorkForce Central’s new report resides, and where it should reside.

So what can we do?

The report offers several worthy suggestions, including a call for the creation of a county task force to help guide future workforce and economic development with the reality of future automation in mind.

It would mark a good start, to say the least.

More importantly, the report notes that a staggering 31 percent of Pierce County residents with a bachelor’s degree are currently under-employed, while thousands of folks trek to King County each and every day for work.

This isn’t a new trend, of course, but it’s a troubling one — and also one Pierce County needs to start seriously addressing if it hopes to be prepared for the realities of automation to come. If we don’t, we’ll continue to see our talent lost to the north.

One aspect of good news that emerges in WorkForce Central’s new report is the fact that we have a pretty good idea which kinds of occupations are, if not automation resistant, at least pretty well insulated.

These jobs, wouldn’t you know it, include STEM careers — or jobs with a focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

That means that, collectively, it would be wise to focus some serious economic development effort on attracting more of these jobs while at the same time bolstering and creating even better pathways for people to achieve them.

That last part is especially true for females and children of color, two segments of the population that have historically been underrepresented in STEM fields for a whole host of troubling systemic reasons.

Feeling any better yet?

I’m not if I’m being honest, but after digesting the new WorkForce Central report it’s also clear that there’s no place to hide.

The fact is automation in many fields of employment is coming if it’s not already here, and averting our eyes in fear — while tempting — won’t do anything to stop it.

All of this is a long way of saying that the fingers-in-the-ear, fetal-position approach I’m tempted to take will do more harm than good.

For Pierce County, that means it’s OK to freak out — at least a little — but then it’s time to act, and fast.

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Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.
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