The role of technology in the loss of middle-class jobs

January 23, 2013 at 11:23 am

The News & Observer ran the first of a three-part Associated Press series on middle-class job loss today, this one looking at the role of technology. As we’ve blogged about before (here, here, and here), this recovery period, which began officially in June 2009, has been marked by growing inequality, rise in low-wage jobs, and an overall lack of job growth at all. As the N&O reports, at this point we have only regained 47 percent of the 7.5 million jobs that were lost due to the Great Recession. Compared to previous recoveries, which regained the jobs lost within about two years, this recovery has been extremely  slow and most accurately described as a “jobless” recovery.

The article takes a deeper look at which jobs were lost, which jobs we are gaining, and possible explanations.  While half of the jobs lost were in mid-pay industries, only 2 percent of the jobs gained so far have been in mid-pay industries. The AP makes the case that advances in technology  have reduced the number of middle-class and middle-skill jobs that are available for workers. These jobs are now performed by computers and robots:

Software is picking out worrisome blots in medical scans, running trains without conductors, driving cars without drivers, spotting profits in stocks trades in milliseconds, analyzing Twitter traffic to tell where to sell certain snacks, sifting through documents for evidence in court cases, recording power usage beamed from digital utility meters at millions of homes, and sorting returned library books. Technology gives rise to “cheaper products and cool services,” says David Autor, an economist at MIT, one of the first to document tech’s role in cutting jobs. “But if you lose your job, that is slim compensation.”

So as more and more jobs and functions become automated, what are the prospects for the human workers who are left behind? The AP doesn’t offer much in the way of solutions, but others are working to find ways that workers can be retrained and find new jobs. Last summer, we blogged about Rebuilding America’s Middle Class, a group of community college leaders from around the country who are focused on the role of community colleges in building up the nation’s workforce.

Demand for community colleges has increased significantly since the recession, but federal and state support for these colleges has stagnated. With so many workers and high school graduates seeking to gain the skills they need to stay competitive in this changing economy, community colleges should be supported as avenues for providing the necessary training, education, and certification to help workers get and keep jobs. Despite changes in technology, the National Skills Coalition reports that half of the jobs in the state in 2016 will be middle-skill jobs. They may not be the same kinds of middle-skill jobs that we had in the previous decade, but nonetheless workers with these skills will be in demand.
While it’s true that technological advances are rapidly changing our world, it is also true that our public institutions, like community colleges, can do much to keep up with these trends and support workers at every skill level. We need a skilled workforce to attract the kinds of businesses to our state that will generate economic growth. To do so, we also need to be strategic in how we educate and train our workers.

Entry filed under: Economic Development, Economy, Jobs & Employment. Tags: , , , , .

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