Anzio Taylor welds the roof section of a light rail car at the Siemens factory in Sacramento last October. It is the kind of advanced manufacturing that is highly sought after. Hector Amezcua Sacramento Bee file
Anzio Taylor welds the roof section of a light rail car at the Siemens factory in Sacramento last October. It is the kind of advanced manufacturing that is highly sought after. Hector Amezcua Sacramento Bee file

Foon Rhee

Associate editor, editorial writer and Viewpoints editor

Foon Rhee

What if entire categories of jobs just disappear?

By Foon Rhee

October 14, 2016 10:45 AM

For all the big talk in the presidential race about creating millions of jobs, the candidates are sidestepping a huge question looming over America’s economic future:

What if, not that long from now, some kinds of jobs – especially blue-collar and manual labor ones – disappear entirely as technology and automation take hold in our knowledge-based service economy?

According to a detailed new study, many Americans may be more keenly aware of this transformation, even if they cannot put a name on it exactly.

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In “The State of American Jobs,” the Pew Research Center says there are “tectonic changes” underway in U.S. workplaces. It found that the vast majority of workers see the importance of new skills and training – and that growth is much faster in jobs requiring more education and training.

According to Pew’s analysis of federal data, the number of workers in occupations demanding average to above-average education mushroomed from 49 million in 1980 to 83 million in 2015, while those in jobs requiring less education increased more slowly, from 50 million to 65 million.

And according to state projections, many of the industries that have grown fastest nationwide will continue to grow fastest in California through 2024, including education and health care. Manufacturing jobs, on the other hand, are expected to expand by only 1 percent.

In Pew’s survey, while workers are more confident about their own job security, they believe the national job picture is unstable in the future. And who can blame them given recent reports? For instance, some experts say that because of remarkable advances in driverless vehicles, it’s possible within the next decade that robots could replace many of America’s 1.7 million truckers. Like other lines of manual labor in jeopardy, this industry is dominated by men.

Nearing the end of his eight years in office, President Barack Obama is starting to discuss the long-term impact of globalization and technology, especially artificial intelligence. In an interview published this week in Wired magazine, Obama acknowledged the danger of a significant number of jobs being wiped out as “low-wage, low-skill individuals become more and more redundant.” In the next 10 to 20 years, he said, we will have to debate how much society values different kinds of jobs and even discuss a guaranteed basic income.

Such deep, politically unpopular thoughts aren’t part of the debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, who are tussling instead over “fair” trade and preserving factory jobs.

At least Clinton’s economic plan recognizes how technology is transforming the economy, and she calls for advanced manufacturing and clean energy jobs. Trump’s plan is, of course, far less detailed, but he holds out the false hope that lots of coal mines and steel mills could reopen.

By offering the mirage that the old manufacturing economy can be resurrected, he is cynically appealing to the fear among white, working-class men.

If Clinton is our next president, taking that fear seriously and finding ways to deal with it will be one of her biggest challenges.

By the numbers

The change in U.S. employment between 1990 and 2015, and the projected change in California employment between 2014 and 2024 in selected industries:

  • Educational services, up 105%; California, up 25%
  • Health care, up 99%; California, up 25%
  • Professional services, up 81%; California, up 19%
  • Leisure and hospitality, up 63%; California, up 23%
  • Transportation and warehousing, up 39%; California, up 20%
  • Construction, up 22%; California, up 32%
  • Government, up 20%; California, up 7%
  • Retail trade, up 19%; California, up 9%
  • Utilities, down 25%; California, up 9%
  • Manufacturing, down 30%; California, up 1%

Sources: Pew Research Center, California Economic Development Department