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Murphy Pledges to Help Workers Whose Jobs Could Fall to Robots, Technology

Governor sets up task force, says New Jersey must prepare for ‘profound impact’ of technological changes

Robotics in factory
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Industrial robots arrange food on pallets at a bakery in Germany

More than half of New Jersey’s most common occupations could be automated in less than 20 years, making the job of salesperson, cashier and clerk virtually obsolete and posing a challenge to the state’s economy and workforce.

Gov. Phil Murphy is taking a proactive approach to the coming upheaval, creating a task force to study what jobs might wind up being replaced by robots or technology, what the state can do to ensure the loss of these jobs does not lead to widespread unemployment and that New Jersey has enough people trained to take the jobs that will need to be filled in the future.

“Building a stronger and fairer economy requires a laser focus on reclaiming New Jersey as the state of innovation,” Murphy said in a statement last Friday announcing he had signed an executive order creating the task force. “We must not lose sight of the profound impacts that technological change will have on our workforce and economy. The insights provided by our Future of Work Task Force will ensure that all New Jersey workers share in the prosperity that innovation can deliver.”

The task force is part of the economic plan Murphy unveiled last week, meant to “proactively plan for the challenges our residents and businesses will face from the continued disruptive impact of technology on the jobs of today.” The plan calls for the task force to pilot such “creative solutions” as lifelong learning accounts that would allow residents to continue to take new classes and learn new skills to keep up with an ever-evolving work world.

Checkout self-service
Credit: Stephen Collins/Flickr

Although still speculative, there is a body of research on which careers are likely to vanish in the future as the use of computers, automation, robots and other technologies becomes more cost-effective than paying humans to perform certain tasks. The change has already started, evidenced by the use of kiosks to order fast food, ATMs and mobile apps for banking, and self-checkout lines in grocery and department stores.

Many jobs have already disappeared

Workers of a certain age have already lived through similar changes, with automated telephone systems virtually eliminating the jobs of those who used to answer the phone and route calls in companies. But the pace of technology has been moving much faster in recent years at the same time as the costs have declined. Amazon’s warehouses, for instance, include several different kinds of “robots” to help with the stacking, sorting and selecting of items people buy every day. People play a major part in monitoring the robotic movements and actually packing boxes, but some say it’s just a matter of time before smarter technology can do even more of these jobs.

According to the United Way’s 2016 ALICE report on New Jersey’s low-wage workers, 14 of the 19 occupations in the state with the most workers have a more than 50 percent chance of being replaced by automation over the next two decades. Particularly alarming, eight of those have a 90 percent chance of becoming obsolete. That latter category includes two of the most populous occupations: retail salespeople, who numbered close to 140,000 in 2014, and cashiers, who totaled close to 100,000.

“Beyond the technology cluster, computerization and automation are changing the nature of work across most sectors and will likely have a large impact on the future of both low-wage and high-wage jobs across industries,” the report states. “While technology has been changing jobs for centuries as businesses weigh the costs of capital versus wages, the latest wave comes as technology has decreased the costs of automation of manufacturing and many services.”

The ALICE report further spells out the problems and costs that result when automation replaces workers.

“When technology eliminates jobs, even if new jobs are created, there is disruption for those losing their jobs and it incurs costs associated with unemployment, moving, and retraining,” the report notes. “The cost of changing jobs will affect millions of U.S. workers, as more than 60 percent of jobs have a higher than 50 percent chance of being replaced by technology by 2020. Low-wage workers, especially those with lower levels of education, are among those most at-risk of not benefiting from new technology-based jobs. For example, a hard-working cashier does not necessarily have the skills to repair digital checkout kiosks. The jobs that remain will be service jobs that cannot be automated and are often low paying, such as health aides, janitors, sales representatives, and movers.”

Wholesale changes by 2025…

Murphy said wholesale job changes could come even sooner, by 2025, and sees the task force as a way to ensure that workers are protected against technological shifts and mitigate the effects of large-scale automation on the state’s economy and workforce. Among its goals will be ensuring that all New Jersey workers find a way to adapt to inevitable technological change and continue to have access to good-paying and meaningful jobs.

Beth Simone Noveck
Beth Simone Noveck, New Jersey's new Chief Innovation Oficer

He gave the job of evaluating this changing landscape and recommending ways for the state to help workers continue to fit into it to Beth Simone Noveck, whom in August he named as the state’s chief innovation officer. Noveck is a professor in the technology, culture, and society department at the New York University Tandon School of Engineering, where she directs the Governance Lab; she was deputy chief technology officer under President Barack Obama, as well as director of the White House Open Government Initiative.

“As technology continues to evolve faster than ever, it is essential for government to prepare for the inevitable challenges and opportunities that lie ahead," Noveck said in a statement. "We must ensure that our citizens, businesses and institutions — as well as our policies, laws and regulations — are equipped to thrive in the 21st century and beyond.”

The task force is to include up to 25 members, all appointed by the governor, with relevant state and national expertise and experience. Members, who will not be compensated, will be asked to address such questions as which technologies will impact work in the state and when, which residents will be most impacted by the changes and how can state government shape the future workforce.

Murphy’s executive order notes that “while there is no consensus on the exact scope of job loss and job creation, it is clear that there will be significant disruptions to the State’s businesses and workers.”

Not all the changes will be bad, with the shifting of some jobs to automation opening up different occupations and opportunities for dealing with new technology. That is something the state needs to try to anticipate, as well.

The executive order asserts that the state “must prepare for and understand how technological advancements will shape the future availability, conditions, and nature of work and the composition of the workforce.” Ultimately, the advisory body is being asked “to produce an evidence-based policy roadmap for New Jersey to prepare for the future of work.”

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