Politics & Government

The robots are coming. Can job retraining and internet access help people stay employed?

Robo-Stow moves a pallet of goods into the upper level of a 1-million-square-foot warehouse at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Dupont on Feb. 12, 2015. The state Legislature is considering ideas to better prepare Washington residents for a workplace where robots reign.
Robo-Stow moves a pallet of goods into the upper level of a 1-million-square-foot warehouse at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Dupont on Feb. 12, 2015. The state Legislature is considering ideas to better prepare Washington residents for a workplace where robots reign. News Tribune file photo

The fear machines are taking jobs has existed since the advent of modern technology, but now some Washington lawmakers have come up with a strategy that they believe will protect workers in the economy of the future.

That idea is the Future of Work Task Force, a proposal in the Legislature that would research ways to prepare workers for the robot-dominated job landscape of the future. The bill follows estimates from one MIT study that roughly a third of U.S. workers may be replaced by robots by the year 2030.

Several worker training programs exist in Washington, although none specifically prepare employees for an automated workplace. The task force, which would cost $350,000, aims to supply the state’s Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board with strategies to prepare current and future generations for the jobs of tomorrow.

Not all of Washington is poised for this undertaking. Some rural areas lack the infrastructure needed to ride the coming wave of automation — and the high-tech jobs to be created in its wake — according to State Sen. Maralyn Chase, the Democrat from Edmonds sponsoring the bill.

“We need to make sure that in the economy and society that we know is coming that our children and our grandchildren are equipped to be able to function in it,” Chase said. “It means some of them will work with artificial intelligence, it means we will automate a lot of repetitive work. We will do all of that, but we have to give them the basic education… they need.”

Some industries already have embraced this future.

In 2017, McDonald’s began implementing automated kiosks in 2,500 stores across the country that allow customers to place orders without the help of a cashier, according to the company website.

Amazon opened a cashier-less grocery store last month in Seattle where customers scan their phone prior to entering and are charged for items upon leaving.

Jobs previously thought immune to the advancement of technology also might become obsolete.

A Stanford undergraduate recently launched a program to revolution the legal profession by offering free legal assistance. Hundreds of topics — from fighting a parking ticket to consumer rebates on malfunctioning toasters — are included in the program’s repertoire, with more complex issues like divorce on the horizon, according to a PBS interview with the computer science student behind the project.

Chase said she believes policies need to be identified to acclimate workers to the impending takeover by robots, but that even more work needs to be done in rural areas where agricultural decline has impacted local economies.

One fix would be internet. An estimated 14 percent of people living in rural Washington do not have access to broadband, according to the Department of Commerce. Democrats and Republicans have rallied together to extend reliable, high-speed internet to rural parts of the state this legislative session.

State Rep. Ed Orcutt, a Republican from Kalama, proposed a bill allowing rural counties to impose an additional sales tax to fund high-speed internet development. Orcutt said he believes “it’s absolutely necessary in today’s economy that we get broadband access to as many people as we possibly can.”

Democrats in the Senate echoed the sentiment with proposals of their own to alleviate the disparity between rural and urban internet access.

“It is unbelievable that the healthcare system in a small town can function without telemedicine. It is unconscionable that we still have schools that don’t have connectivity. It is enraging to expect small businesses to have a fighting chance in a rural community without broadband,” said state Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle.

Carlyle is co-sponsoring Senate Bill 5935, which aims to provide broadband to the people living in rural areas without access to the service. The bill is sponsored by Tim Sheldon, a conservative Democrat from Potlach who caucuses with Senate Republicans. It was voted out of the Senate Energy, Environment and Technology Committee Thursday.

Gov. Jay Inslee, who asked for $5 million from this year’s supplemental budget for the expansion of rural broadband, announced his support for the effort last week on Twitter.

“One of the best things we can do for rural economic development is expand broadband access” Inslee said on Twitter.

Some rural communities have already taken the leap on their own.

Harrington, a town outside Spokane with fewer than 500 residents, recently wired several blocks of its downtown with high-speed internet. The move, according to Heather Slack, the owner of the town’s only coffee shop, was an important first step in remedying the area’s lack of economic opportunity.

“These are farming communities and agriculture is not what it used to be,” Slack said. “We need to keep things interesting and fresh, and that’s where the internet comes in.”

Others say it is obvious small towns should do more to embrace tools to prepare students and workers for an increasingly high-tech job market.

“Why would a high-tech company locate itself in a place where it can’t even get a labor force?” said Greg Tassey, an economist who researches innovation through the University of Washington. “If you want the state as a whole to grow, you’re going to have to have the same high-tech infrastructure available everywhere, and we don’t.”

For workers wary of being replaced by wire and metal, part of that growth comes with fear. That concern is largely unwarranted, according to Tassey, if workers are prepared to become computer programmers, engineers and scientists — some of the high-skilled jobs automation might create.

Chase, the Future of Work Task Force sponsor, said she believes lawmakers are ready to make that possible.

“I do think everyone is buying this unless you’re a survivalist and think Armageddon is coming and everyone is going to hide in caves,” Chase said. “If you believe there’s a future, then this is what we need.”