With robots taking over more jobs, students need more sophisticated skills to compete

Peter Morici is an economist and business professor at the University of Maryland and a national columnist. He tweets @pmorici1.

I have run pieces by him before on the blog and am delighted to share this interesting column today.

By Peter Morici

Americans are justified to be angry about the economic recovery. As President Obama enters his final year, good-paying jobs remain scarce and family incomes are down about $1650 on his watch.

Since Ronald Reagan ran the country, the availability of attractive employment has been trending down and slowing economic growth is often blamed—during Obama’s recovery, GDP has advanced at a 2.2 percent annual pace, whereas the comparable figures for Reagan and Clinton were 4.6 and 3.7 percent.

But that puts the story backwards—the lack of workers adequately trained for a more technological demanding workplace is slowing growth, not the other way around.

SHANGHAI, CHINA - Customers take photos of the two robots cooking noodles in a restaurant in Shanghai, China. The robots made and cooked a bowl of noodles within 90 seconds. (Photo by ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)

SHANGHAI, CHINA – Customers take photos of the two robots cooking noodles in a restaurant in Shanghai, China two weeks ago. The robots made and cooked a bowl of noodles within 90 seconds. (Photo by ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)

Automation has been an enduring theme throughout American history. First, reapers and tractors consolidated farms and sent workers to factories. Then machines replaced workers in manufacturing, pushing them into more highly paid professions in medicine, education and technology but also less well paid occupations in restaurants, retailing and other services.

Until recently, computer-programmed machines could be taught strenuous and repetitive tasks like attaching a heavy, rigid fender onto an automobile. Going forward robots will increasingly replace people in activities requiring more-subtle manual dexterity—like making shirts and harvesting fruit—and those requiring more complex cognitive processes like masonry constructiondriving limousines and building new robots that adapt to changing environmental conditions.

The drugstore I visit in Washington no longer has cashiers—just a group of checkout machines and one clerk to assist technologically flummoxed patrons.  Over the next two decades, robots will be capable of unloading pallets, stocking shelves, filling prescriptions, and generally running the store with minimal human intervention.

By 2030, it will become technologically possible to replace 90 percent of the jobs as we know them by smart machines. The real challenge will be training most Americans to engage in intellectually demanding and creative work, or the globalization of technology and competition will relegate most of us to very low paying work better left to androids.

In 2016, Americans should be skeptical, not merely of false promises to restore prosperity made by Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump but also outraged by the handiwork of mainstream politicians.

The latter’s efforts to make a high school diploma universal have made it a nearly worthless credential. Less than 40 percent of 12 graders are ready to read or learn math at the college level, and many fewer have skills to enter technically demanding positions without post-secondary training.

A college diploma is not much better. After pushing millions of unqualified students into universities through affirmative action and government loan programs, four in ten graduates lack the complex reasoning skills needed for white collar work—as it exists today, never mind as it will be after machines equipped with high-level artificial intelligence can replace armies of stockbrokers, insurance adjusters and restaurant managers over the next several decades.

Meanwhile the president and his presumptive heir, Hillary Clinton, remain obsessed with sexism in education and the workplace. That nearly 60 percent of college degrees are now awarded to women and females often earn more than males in comparable positions are inconvenient facts when there are voters to be misled to extend a political dynasty.

And conservatives—including the likes of Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio —oppose universal standards for more academic rigor like the Common Core.

The future lies in educating Americans, not to be angry about false injustice or an omnipresent state, but rather to build and teach the machines that will do the work that has burdened humanity since the first branch was shaped into a hunting implement.

Without young people trained and encouraged to do that sophisticated work, the locus of prosperity will permanently shift from America to Asia, where pragmatic leaders urge children to study engineering, not the superstitions peddled by pious academics and deceitful politicians.

Reader Comments 0

39 comments
Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

I remember back in the early 80's, a college professor told the class that computers would put the paper companies out of business.  The reality is that computers were the best thing that could have happened to the paper industry.  

Paper checks?  The future is not too bright.  My youngest daughter has written two checks in her lifetime.  Everything else has been debit card, online purchases and bill pay.

Business is dynamic.  The main reason there are not that many labor intensive jobs in America is that we off-shored those jobs to countries where they pay laborers pennies per day.

Being a Phd and economist, Morici should know one basic tenet of labor:  The fruits of your labor must exceed the cost of your labor.  When the government pays the non-skilled laborer more to sit around doing nothing than he could make in the market place, guess what, that is exactly what he is going to do.

When I was a lad of eighteen, I was in awe of these 28 year old PHD's and their ability to spout this type of rhetoric.  When I went back for my MBA after fifteen years in the "real world", I realized how full of s**t most of these professors were.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

The author should stick to the facts, rather than his determined slant.  This would be a good example of bias, loaded language, and propaganda for a high school psych class to dissect.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@class80olddog 

Of course not, but that fact gives the reader one more piece of information to weigh as the reader assesses the reason for the "loaded language" in his article.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@MaryElizabethSings @class80olddog I would have found this much more useful if it had not been information paired with an attack on our current President.


The author needs to decide if he wants a factual article, or an opinion piece.

class80olddog
class80olddog

"the graduation rate has risen to 80 percent, from under 65 percent just four years ago. But college entrance exams given to 11th graders last year showed that only one in 10 students was ready for college-level reading and only about one in 14 was prepared for entry-level college math. " Huh!  I wonder how that happened? Common Core would be fine as "standards" but would not ever be enforced.  I will take CC if you promise that it will be enforced (no student passes to the next grade level if they don't pass the test for minimum requirements for that grade). 

class80olddog
class80olddog

You should ask what is driving the push to automation.  When a worker is worth $8 an hour but they make the minimum wage $15 an hour, suddenly a machine at McDonald's becomes economically very attractive.  About twenty years ago, with the costs of benefits rising astronomically (especially insurance) and with a spate of worker's compensation injuries, we installed a $2 million machine that reduced our workforce by 8 people.  The economics made sense. 

Starik
Starik

@Intteach @class80olddog What about the proposal for $15 as the minimum wage?  If we're going to fail to educate our kids, and we are, let them live a little better.  Eliminate tax shelters for the top earners to pay for it.

Starik
Starik

@class80olddog @Starik @Intteach :) Sort of.  I consider myself a moderate, and I lean to the left on some topics and to the right on others.  The fact is that between culture, innate ability, and our massively screwed up education system we sort of need to provide people who work at menial jobs - the only jobs they can do -  enough of a living that makes work at least as attractive as petty crime.  Armed Robbery and drug dealing will always pay better than working, and people can work as much or as little as they want to.  We could legalize drugs, but I wouldn't recommend legalizing Armed Robbery.

class80olddog
class80olddog

@Starik @class80olddog @Intteach  I don't recommend legalizing armed robbery either.  Here is a novel idea: put people who commit armed robbery (or carjacking) in jail for 20 years!  It is interesting that a couple of guys are sentenced to five years in prison for burning a few acres of federal land, while a teenager who gets drunk and kills four people gets probation, and career criminals in Fulton county who have been arrested for burglary 10 - 15 times get minimum jail time.

Starik
Starik

@class80olddog @Starik @Intteach It varies widely by the judicial circuit. Fulton is notoriously lenient. By State law, people convicted of Armed Robbery get a minimum 10 years without parole. Even the 13 year olds. 


The biggest factor in sentencing? Minutes of footage on TV news and column inches in the newspaper.

Starik
Starik

@class80olddog @Starik @Intteach Source?  In Georgia the most lenient sentence for murder is life in prison.  Parole can happen, after a decade or so of good behavior.

Starik
Starik

@class80olddog @Starik @Intteach I did, and didn't find the PBS article you mention.  I'm no expert on anything outside of Georgia, but I think this information is dead wrong. Can you link me so I can comment? 


The only legal sentence for murder in this State is Life, Life Without Parole and Death. 


See this link: https://pap.georgia.gov/life-sentences

Starik
Starik

@class80olddog @Starik @Intteach I get it now. They're not listing figures for murder, they're for homicide.  What constitutes murder varies by state - some have degrees of murder, but Georgia does not. What we do have is:


Murder: Life, Life Without Parole, Death

Voluntary Manslaughter, up to 20 Years

Involuntary Manslaughter, up to 10 Years

Homicide by Vehicle, up to 10 Years

Homicide by Vehicle (Misdemeanor) 


In some states our Voluntary Manslaughter might be called Murder in the 2d Degree, Involuntary might be 3d Degree or something else. There is no national definition.  Each state has its own laws defining crimes.


Homicide means killing a human being. It can even be lawful (war), justifiable, excusable and some believe praiseworthy - a traditional, unwritten defense in Georgia is "he needed killing."

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

Establishing humanity in this world's evolution, not just skilled jobs:


One has to ask the question:  How much of those "attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors" that do not support educational attainment in children of poverty is the fault of the individual, or the individual's family, or our society, itself?

Our society is constantly evolving in consciousness from seeing black people as inferior slaves, to subservient Jim Crow survivors, to nonpersons as in the book and film, "Black Like Me," to black power types asserting that they do exist and have power, to lack of support for today's young black males, to single-parent families?  We have not stopped in this ongoing evolutionary process of achieving true racial justice and equality yet.  The black anger and hopelessness, reflected in unstable family situations, is only another phase through which we and America, itself, will evolve toward a "more perfect union."  We must have the self-awareness and brutal honesty to see and to acknowledge the part that the society as a whole has played in creating the present evolutionary phase, based upon past phases of black liberation in America.  Understanding this requires higher consciousness backed by historical knowledge of depth. We can change readily what we diagnose correctly and have the will and the heart to affect positively, for all Americans.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

Peter Morici has too many built in biases, which come through even in this article, for my tastes, even as he presents the fact that the world is becoming more and more technological.


Will this world evolve into a world of a small percentage of leaders and a larger percentage of workers of mundane tasks, requiring little of their full humanity and intellect?  I hope not.


One option is that service jobs to others throughout America, and throughout the world, will begin to find value and employment in the job market.  Service jobs that serve other human beings in need enhance our humanity and our knowledge that inherently we are all equal.  We are in a state of evolution.  Heaven help us if the vision of Morici comes into fruition for the human race.  Please see my following post lifted from another thread on this blog today as food for thought.

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

@MaryElizabethSings


I am with you MES. For any interested, read about the jobless future. It is coming whether we like it or not. We will have to build a different society to accommodate it.

Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

@MaryElizabethSings

"Peter Morici has too many built in biases, which come through even in this article, for my tastes, even as he presents the fact that the world is becoming more and more technological."


LOL.  Said the lady who constantly reminds us how "evil" Republicans and businessmen are.

Travelfish
Travelfish

Perversely, while low-skill jobs are increasingly in danger of being replaced by automation ... we continue to allow in high numbers of low-skill immigrants.

How many will end up on public assistance?

class80olddog
class80olddog

@Travelfish There are still plenty of low-skilled jobs out there - but Americans won't do them (or won't do them well).  Why do businesses hire immigrants?  Because they work hard and don't complain.  It is not about the money (solely) - immigrant roofers are often paid $20 an hour, not minimum wage.  And in most cases, they are legally on the books and pay taxes (and SS) on the money they earn.  Why don't you see unemployed Americans picking Vidalia onions?  Too hard, they say - so the immigrants are glad to do it. I have seen this first hand in business.

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

@class80olddog @Travelfish


So your solution is to always import immigrants who will do harder jobs for less money than current citizens? We should bus in illegal immigrants by the millions to get the per hour roofer cost down to minimum wage. then I can have a cheaper house (unless I am a roofer).

class80olddog
class80olddog

@AvgGeorgian @class80olddog @Travelfish  No, what I would like to see is Americans get back to the work ethic they used to have - where they are GLAD to get a job at $7.75 an hour when that is all that is available.  Where they go out and they work hard, they arrive early and stay late and are not "out sick" all the time.  Where they take pride in doing a good job.

class80olddog
class80olddog

@AvgGeorgian @class80olddog @Travelfish  And as far as illegal immigrants, I favor a system to vet the existing immigrants and establish a path to legal work, to require all businesses to use e-verify, to improve e-verify so that it is effective, and to stop future illegal immigration and deport those who fail the vetting process. And while we are at it, we could have a Constitutional amendment to do away with the birthright citizenship to make us like France and Great Britain (they did away with their birthright citizenship many years ago ).

Starik
Starik

@Travelfish There are still plenty of hard, sweaty, unpleasant jobs that can't be automated yet.  Many types of farm labor, building construction, road building and the like need immigrant workers to do them, because native low skill people would not take them.  Immigrants work hard. They don't often become welfare-dependent, or not for long.  Most welfare, like food stamps, are awarded to their American citizen children.  These kids grow up and become future productive workers.

Starik
Starik

@class80olddog @AvgGeorgian @Travelfish A $7.75 job works out to around $16,000 a year.  Not attractive at all.  We need people to do these jobs. We need to pay them more, and if we do we'll we'll get better people performing them, and be better off in the long run.

Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

@Travelfish

I am of the opinion that the main reason we have high levels of immigration (legal and illegal) is because of our high level of public assistance.  Why work when you can lay on your a** and draw a government check?