Politics & Government

Almost half of Pierce County workers could be replaced by robots, analysis shows

Stories of cashier-less grocery stores, self-driving cars and programmable lawyers have flooded the news in the past six months, kicking off a renewed debate over whether robots might soon dominate the global economy.

But how will the impending takeover of robots in the workplace affect Pierce County?

Roughly half of workers in Pierce County have jobs a University of Oxford study rated as having a high probability of becoming automated in the future, including positions in retail, food prep, truck driving, and the labor industry.

The study’s authors — Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne — rated 702 jobs on the likelihood they could be automated in the future.

The study’s scale runs from 0 to 1, with a higher rating indicating a greater probability of automation. For this story, The News Tribune considered jobs with a 0.7 rating or higher as prone to automation and those with a 0.3 rating or lower as relatively immune to automation.

The newspaper used those ratings combined with Bureau of Labor Statistics data from 2016 to determine how many jobs in Pierce County — and what type — are most susceptible to displacement in the coming wave of automation. Only jobs that included data for yearly earnings and number of workers were included.

A total of 134,600 people work jobs in Pierce County that have a high probability of being automated, compared to 280,270 total workers, according to the newspaper’s analysis.

The most common jobs prone to automation are retail salespersons (10,530), food-preparation and service workers (9,080), laborers (7,270), cashiers (6,610), office clerks (6,370) and truck drivers (5,030).

Conversely, there are 89,310 people in Pierce County who work jobs that are relatively immune to automation — roughly one third of the county’s workforce.

The most common of these jobs are nurses (6,500), managers (3,270), nursing assistants (2,930), elementary school teachers (2,910) and office and administrative supervisors (2,850). The average yearly earnings for these jobs and others not likely to be automated is $72,271.

While some high-paying jobs are susceptible to automation, the majority are low-paying. Workers susceptible to automation earn on average $43,868 a year.

Many of these workers may be unable to relocate or retrain for a new, higher-qualifying job should their current position become obsolete, according to Jacob Vigdor, a professor with the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington.

Vigdor said the issue of automation is being compounded by a lack of affordable housing in places where workers have historically relocated, such as cities with hot economies.

The scope of today’s automation, Vigdor added, is also unprecedented.

Last year, McDonald’s announced it will replace cashiers in 2,500 of its U.S. locations with automated kiosks. Fifty percent of the restaurant locations in Washington, Oregon, Montana and Alaska will feature these kiosks by 2018, nine of which are in Pierce County, according to a company spokesperson.

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 revolutionize 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.

“What do we think needs to happen for the people who are displaced if they can’t move to Seattle for a job, if they can’t afford to move to San Francisco where the economy is booming,” Vigdor said. “How do we ensure these opportunities are available for folks?”

For one Washington lawmaker, the answer is policy.

State Sen. Maralyn Chase, a Democrat from Edmonds, is pushing the Legislature to reconsider how Washington will prepare current and future generations for the jobs of tomorrow. Her proposed bill, which has passed the House, aims to identify policies to improve infrastructure and training to better acclimate employees to the high-tech jobs of the future.

“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 in an interview with The News Tribune and The Olympian earlier in the month. “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.”

Chase’s bill follows one MIT study that estimated roughly a third of U.S. workers may lose their job to automation by 2030. The Oxford study that rated jobs by how susceptible they are to automation put that number closer to one half of all worked.

One upside to these changes is that some dangerous jobs could be automated, eliminating risk for some workers.

Laborers who lift heavy loads could be spared the risk of injury should their job be automated and they find better work, according to Leonard Smith, a union organizer that represents several professions that may be impacted by automation.

“The reason people who do harsh physical labor look forward to retirement is because their body can’t take it anymore,” Smith said. “So if there are aspects of automation that help workers live longer, healthier lives, I don’t foresee why anyone would be opposed to that.”