By BRIANNA DAVIS, TIM DASHIELL & JOHN HACK
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writers
Many jobs that are common today will become automated over the next decade — and in some cases sooner than that. Jobs like telemarketer, tax preparers, legal secretaries and file clerks are likely to be gone in the near future. Occupational therapists, school teachers, athletic trainers and dentists are all safe, according to research by automation experts Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborn.
Automation poses a threat to some industries and may benefit others. We examined recent data to determine which categories of jobs are likeliest to be automated in the future. And we asked professors and staff at Towson University who are experts in fields that may be impacted by automation about these trends.
What the data show
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Using data collected by Frey and Osborn, we analyzed each type of occupation listed and categorized them using the classification system from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. There are 23 categories, and we focused on the jobs that were among the most likely (75-99%) and least likely (0-25%) to be automated in the future. The types of jobs that are most likely to be automated fall into five main categories: Production; office and administrative support; construction and excavation; transportation and material moving; and installation, maintenance and repair.
The types of jobs that are least likely to be automated include: healthcare practitioners and technical; life, physical and social science; management; arts, design, entertainment, sports and media; and architecture and engineering. We used this information to select professors who worked in some of these fields and taught students who want to have some of these jobs in the future.
What the interviews reveal
Mark Burchick, a multimedia technician in Towson’s Electronic Media & Film department, is like many faculty and staff we interviewed. He said he is “conflicted” and “on the fence” about automation.
“My thought is that automation is bad for most industries because while it’s designed for efficiency and cost saving, it ultimately leaves these industries without that sense of a human touch, which gives them their unique flavor and personality,” he said. “I don’t think people will want to interact with largely automated industries, especially within food service and retail. Efficiency and cost saving may be helpful, but customer service and emotional experience will drive the end result.”
Several professors said automation is not a threat or a small threat — not just to their field but to many jobs. However, most said that there are some jobs that will likely be replaced.
Automation is a thread to routinized work, jobs that don’t require advanced skills
Many professors agreed that automation is a large threat to jobs that jobs that are routine and can easily done by automated systems.
- Andrew Schiff, an accounting professor at Towson, said many jobs are not at risk but that “the only tasks that can be automated efficiently are routine and basic tasks” (He cited clerical tasks as being at risk).
- Elsa Lankford, an associate professor of electronic media and film: “I think that automation can be a threat to repetitive jobs.”
- Tom Rhoads, a professor of economics and Towson: “Anything a human can do that a machine can also do is at risk for automation” (He cited fast food workers, cashiers and taxi drivers as likely to lose their jobs).
- Pallavi Guha, an assistant professor of journalism and new media: “I think the most vulnerable [job] could be data entry… People who are just analyzing data and what you could see in a snapshot they would actually write in a report, so those might be in danger because of a lot of software that we have [do that task].”
- Burchick said that most at risk are “retail, food service, data entry. The more menial tasks that are vulnerable to being replaced by a computer.”
Professors say automation will change or eliminate jobs in their field
Many professors said automation will take — or already has taken — a toll on jobs in their fields.
- Rhoads: “When you look at accounting and economics, things that require numbers are definitely at risk. Why do you need a person to put in those numbers and do those calculations when a computer or a program can do it?”
- Schiff: “Basic things like payroll, accounts payable, accounts receivable, basic tax returns” are at risk.
But some jobs, interviewees said, are relatively safe. For instance, Burchick said film jobs are “highly skill-dependent” and are unlikely to be replaced.
Automation can be a positive force
Professors generally agreed that automation isn’t a solely negative force. Some said it will make the workplace more productive and efficient, allowing workers to focus on higher-level tasks.
- Schiff: “Automation more times than not makes work more efficient, lowers costs and tends to leave profits left over for other services.”
- Burchick: “Anecdotally, I’d heard of stories with certain industries that are incredibly dangerous, like manufacturing, lumber milling, which benefit from automation or automated technologies. It also tends to increase productivity.”
- Finn Christensen, an associate professor of economics: “Automation, I view, as a good thing. Because what’s happening is it’s making the workplace more productive. And increases in productivity lead to economic growth. So, if you think economic growth is good, then you view automation as good.”
- Lankford: “Hopefully automation can be assisting people in doing the work that nobody wants to do… If we plan this out correctly, we can think about how technology can make people’s lives better. Ideally there’s a way to connect it to narrowing the gap between the 1% and the rest of us. Not to get too philosophical, but we have to think about why these menial jobs exist in the first place.”
Students are largely unaware of automation
Professors agreed that most students are not aware of these trends. Burchick said “it’s going to be a slow burn for a couple years as increased technology rollouts reach these industries.”
Guha said she doesn’t think there’s enough discussion in college classes. “We do a lot of such discussion in my class, but I don’t think there is enough discussion [overall]. I am surprised that it’s not a part of the curriculum or career center.”
Rhoads said when he teaches about unemployment in his class, “I go over structural unemployment and how technological changes affect the structure in our field”.
Lankford added that “as a college professor, I have to remember that I am not training somebody to do a particular job or work on particular software/technology. Rather, I am helping a student become a creative intelligent citizen who is entrepreneurial and knows how to learn on their own, as the employment situations will be constantly changing.”
Advice to avoid losing your job to automation: Constantly be “re-skilling” yourself
Interviewees said that employees who are eager to develop new skills are likeliest to avoid losing their jobs.
- Burchick: “Develop a skillset which is irreplaceable — something that requires a lot of hands-on or mental power which can’t be easily replaced with computer programs or robotic manufacturing.”
- Guha: “Re-skill yourself in the sense of keeping yourself updated. For example, if you’re a journalist now, than it’s very important that you know how to tackle data and know a little bit about data science, a little bit of coding, a little bit of scraping through social media.