Will Your Job be Replaced by a Robot?

Much of the news these days is about “saving” jobs. While some believe that jobs are unfairly being taken by immigrants, the reality is that most have been automated. Things are only going to get worse as advances in technology and artificial intelligence replace jobs we never imagined could be performed by a robot or a computer.

Many community colleges have programs that prepare people for what are now good paying, in-demand jobs, like truck driving. Recently I have begun to wonder what we should be saying to students preparing to take their commercial driver’s license exam when in ten years these jobs will be obsolete. And what about welders? Take any of the “Will My Job Be Replaced by A Robot?” quizzes proliferating on the web and find a broad range of the jobs for which we proudly prepare students, all easily replaced. We have seen it happen with manufacturing, but are we ready for the next wave?

We need to be helping whole segments of the population let go of a way of life. And I’m not sure how we do that.

Several years ago, a colleague of mine was a panelist following the showing of a film, On Coal River, about how mountaintop mining was polluting the water and sickening children in a local school. In one scene families picketed in favor of the mining company. My colleague, a biology professor, was appalled. He could not understand how, when presented with overwhelming scientific evidence (if the sludge from their faucets wasn’t enough), these people could continue to support the mining company that put them in harm’s way. 


mountaintop mining

mountaintop mining

For me, it was easy to understand. Mining had been a way of life for these families for generations. If the mine left, what would they have? How would they earn a living?  More importantly, what would their new identity be?   

I remember a retraining program we did for a small group of men laid off by a printing company. They earned HVAC certificates that made them immediately employable. But the program didn’t address the profound blow to their self-esteem. Work defines us, and while there is dignity in all work, we clearly value some jobs over others. It is not easy for a man who has been a professional his entire career to cope with entering the trades when it wasn’t his choice.

I live in an area dominated by farming and fishing. Agriculture has changed dramatically as machines replace people. In the film Farmland one of the young farmers talks about waiting for the computer on his combine to update before he can begin a day’s work. But the work will be done faster and more accurately as the computer responds to the content of the soil and waters or administers fertilizer appropriately. It only takes one or two people to do the work that used to require dozens.

The waterman’s way of life is also disappearing. One waterman confronted with this reality marched across the stage at a GED graduation and proudly told the audience “it’s never too late.” He was preparing for the long haul of getting an education and finding new work. He was also setting an example for his children, who would never be able to sustain themselves on the water. But others do not want to start over. They are proud of their heritage and can’t envision another future. 

It is immoral to promise to bring automated jobs back. However, we ignore the changes we are asking people to make at our peril. We may offer new jobs, but we need to account for the losses, real and perceived. As educators, we think we know the answer. It is, of course, education. But what we assume is change for the better is, for many, as much a loss as an improvement. That is what we must acknowledge, or face the consequences of a bitter population acting out of anger.

Barbara ViniarComment