Oct 31, 2019 - Economy

The future of work is already here

Illustration of a giant robot arm with it's hand getting ready to flick a retail/janitorial worker off screen

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Headlines, white papers and studies say AI and robotics will trigger massive job losses in the future. But the technologies that we have today — from spreadsheets to smartphones — have already upended millions of jobs.

Why it matters: The jobs that have changed most dramatically over the last decade are lower-paying ones that are often located in economically distressed parts of the country. The disruption is adding pressure on Americans who are already struggling.

The big picture: Much of the scholarship on the future of work looks ahead to predict which industries will change in the years to come.

  • A new report from the Markle Foundation, a nonprofit that studies technology's impact on society, looks backward instead — identifying the jobs that have already transformed and require far more tech skills than they did just 10 years ago.
  • "The public narrative seems to be around the big, seismic shifts in the workplace," says Michele Chang, a director at the Markle Foundation. "We're trying to call attention to the smaller, day-to-day impact. If you add up all of the small changes, it's big."

What's happening: Per Markle's analysis of how quickly 715 different occupations have changed, the hardest hit U.S. sectors are retail and health care.

For example, there are around 4.5 million retail salespeople in America who make a median annual salary of $24,200. The number of digital skills required to do this job has increased 22% from 2008 to 2018.

  • Those skills include everything from keeping track of inventory through a computerized system to learning to work alongside a shelf-scanning robot in store aisles.
  • And if employees aren't trained on how to adapt to these seemingly minute changes, they could be knocked out of their jobs, the report says.

Some occupations are transforming even more quickly.

  • Digital skills required for the job of personal health care aide have increased 189% over the last decade. That's a job that around 2.2 million Americans do — and the median annual salary is just $24,020.
  • For the U.S.'s 2.1 million janitors making a median wage of $26,110, tech skills have increased 46%.
  • And 673,500 medical assistants who make $33,160 need 25% more tech skills than they did 10 years ago.

"These are the mainstays of middle-skill employment in America, and they are transforming at breakneck pace," says Mark Muro, who has studied the digitalization of American jobs at the Brookings Institution. "While we can talk about how vulnerable they will be going forward, they’re already, right now, involved in massive skill change."

The other side: The jobs that are at the top of the wage pyramid are the ones that have barely changed since 2008 — often because they are already high-tech occupations.

  • The tech skills required to be a software developer in the U.S. have increased just 1% since 2008, and the median salary for that job is $103,670.
  • For financial managers, who make $127,290, the number of digital skills required has actually dropped 2% in that time period as automation takes care of some of the more technical parts of the job.

What to watch: The cost to reskill and upskill workers to deal with even the smallest technological changes to their jobs will be in the tens of billions of dollars — at least. And while big companies like Walmart and Amazon might have pockets deep enough to pay for training, smaller companies will have to rely on the government to step forward.

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