Business & Economy

Yes, the robots are coming for your job

Robots at the Murata booth at the 2014 International CES consumer technology trade show at the Las Vegas Convention Center.
Robots at the Murata booth at the 2014 International CES consumer technology trade show at the Las Vegas Convention Center.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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A new study shows that about 60 percent of the Southern California workforce is vulnerable to being replaced by automation in the coming decades.

The report, from the University of Redlands' Institute for Spatial Economic Analysis, examined 100 metropolitan areas in the U.S. with workforces of at least 250,000 people.

It found that 63 percent of the workforce in the Riverside-San Bernardino area has a high probability of eventually being replaced by machines, robotics or computerization. The report found 59 percent of workers in Los Angeles and Orange counties are similarly at risk. 

To compete in a global marketplace, more companies are turning to automation to keep their costs down. While it's most associated with manufacturing, robotics and computerization is increasingly replacing many customer-facing occupations, such as grocery store cashiers and food servers.

Future advances will go further to eventually replace jobs once thought to be indispensable, like teachers and truck drivers.

"The replacement of jobs by machines has been happening continuously since the Industrial Revolution, but it’s expected to significantly accelerate in the coming 10 or 20 years," said Professor Johannes Moenius, the report's author and founding director of the Institute. "Pretty much everyone will be affected, but some metropolitan areas will see a lot more jobs vanish than others."

Workers who drive for a living, work in fast food restaurants, and do repetitive office tasks like data entry are particularly vulnerable to having their jobs replaced by machines in the next 10 to 20 years, he said.

"They're technically at an automation risk in the next 20 years, but that doesn't necessarily mean they get automated," said Moenius, explaining that while the technology may exist to replace workers, employers may not be able to afford the machines for decades.

"You don't need to be afraid that we will see mass layoffs tomorrow," he said.

The Redlands economists used a 2013 Oxford study, which rated U.S. occupations based on the probability that a machine could eventually complete the same tasks. Oxford found that 47 percent of U.S. jobs are vulnerable to automation.

To determine which parts of the U.S. have the highest concentrations of vulnerable workers, Moenius matched the Oxford data with U.S. Department of Labor statistics, which include a regional count of workers in various jobs.

He found that the Las Vegas area had the highest share of vulnerable workers. El Paso, Texas ranked second. The San Bernardino-Riverside area ranked third.

Moenius said it's important for workers to know if they have an automation risk so they can get retrained for less vulnerable jobs.

"What they really need to do is cut down on the hours that they work right now and see whether they can get additional education in professions that have a much lower probability of being automated," he said.

Those lower-risk jobs are in health care, social services and management, said Moenius, noting that they all require more human interaction, communication and more sophisticated reasoning skills, which can't easily be replicated by a machine or computer algorithm.