Technology invading nearly all U.S. jobs, even lower skilled: study

FILE PHOTO: Worker walks between rows of automated cars at the Defense Logistics Agency's giant storage facility outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
FILE PHOTO: A worker walks between rows of automated cars at the Defense Logistics Agency's giant storage facility outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania June 13, 2012. REUTERS/Tim Shaffer/File Photo

November 15, 2017

By Timothy Aeppel

(Reuters) – Forget robots. The real transformation taking place in nearly every workplace is the invasion of digital tools.

The use of digital tools has increased, often dramatically, in 517 of 545 occupations since 2002, with a striking uptick in many lower-skilled occupations, according to a study released Wednesday by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. (Study: http://brook.gs/2mn6g9z)

The report underscores the growing need for workers of all types to gain digital skills and explains why many employers say they struggle to fill jobs, including many that in the past required few digital skills. There is anxiety about automation displacing workers and in many cases, new digital tools allow one worker to do work previously done by several.

Those 545 occupations reflect 90 percent of all jobs in the economy. The report found that jobs with greater digital content tend to pay more and are increasingly concentrated in traditional high-tech centers like Silicon Valley, Seattle and Austin, Texas. (Graphic: http://tmsnrt.rs/2zDADhu)

The report used U.S. Department of Labor data to assign a rating of zero to 100 to each occupation, reflecting the amount that each required use of digital technology. The average score for all occupations rose from 29 in 2002 to 46 in 2016, a 59 percent increase.

Some jobs, especially higher-paying service occupations, have long used digital tools and that continued to grow, the study found. At the same, many jobs that had little or no digital content in 2002 have now become far more likely to require those skills.

Warehouse workers who move around freight saw their average score rise from 5 in 2002 to 25 in 2016. These workers now use handheld devices to track inventories and devices that sound an alarm if they try to put a box into the wrong truck.

The study found the digital score for roofers jumped from zero to 22, while for parking lot attendants it rose from 3 to 26.

“What we found is that the more digital a job is, on balance the better the pay—and also the less chance there is for total displacement of your job,” said Mark Muro, a senior fellow at Brookings and coauthor of the report.

Software developers, the top-ranked occupation for digital skills in both 2002 and 2016, saw their rating slip to 94 from 97. Muro speculates that as that field has matured, there are more rolls for software developers to work as managers of other software developers, which mean doing less direct programming work.

At the other extreme are jobs like those done by Steve Engle, a 53-year-old factory worker at Cummins Inc’s <CMI.N> engine plant in Seymour, Indiana.

One of his tasks is to insert 56 bolts on the flywheel housing of each engine as it moves down the line and tighten the bolts in a certain sequence. He now uses a tool that is connected to a computer screen, which guides him to the right bolt and will not allow him to tighten the wrong one. It also knows exactly when the bolt is tight enough and then stops.

“This tool won’t let me do it wrong,” he said.

(Reporting by Timothy Aeppel in New York; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

  • airstart

    The job described in the article done by Steve Engle, insert and tighten 56 bolts in a fly wheel assy. Are they serious? This union job probably pays $50 an hour, no wonder manufacturing are buying robots. Trained chimps would work fine except they need to be fed occasionally and brain dead animal rights groups would start a riot.

  • eladtoor

    Those who dread the year 2020, and the possible repeat of the disastrous Trump/Clinton fiasco, fear not. Elon Musk has hinted that he has been toying, in his basement workshop, with the automated blaring horn system from one of his Teslas, which is designed to automatically warn if a disastrous collision is unavoidable. “I’ve been experimenting with incorporating various levels of AI in the system, and found that it takes only a bare minimum of AI to make the system capable of out-debating and out-functioning either of the two 2016 presidential candidates”.
    “So if the 2016 scenario is repeated, I’ll enter my AI automated blaring Tesla horn system in the race, and for one of the few times in generations, our nation will have a competent, intelligent winning candidate for the Presidency”.

  • AtomicFury

    On the one hand, it would be foolish to think any company wouldn’t exploit ways to reduce operating costs. On the other, people need to make a living somehow.

  • Guest123

    And all the while the US keeps bringing in hoards of overseas workers to displaced American workers through companies like InfoSys, Cognizant and Tata. They need to stop the H1-B visas now and give Americans a chance at these high tech jobs.

    • rodger ramjet

      As long as Microsoft, Apple,.Amazon, Google, etc. stock prices keep going up through the Ionosphere and they keep paying off Congress, the H1B program will continue to flourish. In fact i see the H1B program opening up even more with H1B employees coming to this country and replacing more American engineers.

    • Varangian Guard

      You can’t get many inner city children to finish their education let alone do well while they get it. This would normally lead to factory and manufacturing jobs, but these same individuals do not want to work on the line. They won’t show up to work, yet expect to get paid anyways citing union privilege.
      Management is driven to use automation because it shows up for work, everyday, doesn’t take breaks, and has less down time than a human. Sad but true, the manufacturing jobs went away not because of technological advances, but because technological advances were required to combat poor performance and attendance by those with the jobs. They did it to themselves.
      Now with the digital technology, the workers that are retained are of much lower value as they take no responsibility or accountability for their positions. Hence further technological advances to replace those workers. There are many assembly lines that run dark. They don’t need light, because machines do ALL the work. They can run 24/7 and some can repair themselves.
      Technology has made our lives easier and better, but also made humans soft, and whiney. Redundant and obsolescence is destiny.

      • irjsiq

        Agreed!!

    • Phil M. Kelley

      hoard = a collection of stuff
      horde = a whole bunch of people

    • irjsiq

      Problem Is: Our Schools have ‘dumbed-down’ Our Student Population; a Student MUST Have an Inordinate Amount of Drive, to tackle the More Difficult Subjects and Courses, which Permits too many Students to ‘fall through the cracks. Science, Technology, Engineering, Math!