SPECIAL REPORT: The Great Reset
New technologies are evolving at a break-neck pace, becoming faster, more efficient, more economical, and in turn currently taking a drastic toll on the middle-class job market.
According to a study by The Associated Press, nearly half of the 7.5 million jobs lost during the Great Recession were in mid-pay industries. And though the unemployment rate has steadily improved since October 2009, technology, not human workers, is stepping in to fill many of the voids left in middle class industries.
Self-check out stations at the grocery store, online shopping, digital electricity meter readers – all of these and more have contributed to the loss of millions of jobs.
But American history is replete with stories of automation threatening flesh and bone workers, and the need for adaptation is nothing new, said Matthew Young, McCoy associate professor of history at Marietta College.
Question: According to the Associated Press, millions of mid-skill jobs have disappeared in the past five years, thanks to technology that can easily do or reduce a human’s work. What are some other historical examples of technological advancement impacting the American workforce?
Answer: From the perspective of American history, really I think the history of labor and industrialization in the United States has been in a constant state of change. That’s really what it’s about-the process of a continually changing environment. In some ways what we see right now is new and different but in some ways it is part of this big, ongoing process.
If you want a concrete example, looking at this part of the country along the Ohio River valley, we can go back 40 or 50 years and we can see this kind of process. For a long time this has been the place of a lot of heavy industry. That’s basically largely gone. We’re probably never going to see kind of a revival of that manufacturing sector.
Q: How is this period of technological innovation different from those in the past?
A: The thought has been if we see a downturn in one sector we would see it return in another sector in the United States. Now that’s not happening so much.
Q: Why is that?
A: Technology means more efficient productivity. Basically it means more product with less labor. If you think about the auto industry it’s a good example. People were already making automobiles before Henry Ford came along. What Ford did was automate the process. In reality you needed less people in order to make the product. He made it more efficient to build it.
Q: Historically, how does society adjust to these technologically driven changes in the work force and long does it take?
A: I would say that it just depends on where you look at and this is sort of the heart of the debate of America’s economic future. Industrialization doesn’t just change the labor force. It completely changes the nature of the culture and the society. It changes family relationships. It brings about a complete change in the way society is structured. I don’t think it’s too much to suggest that this shift will bring about a new type of revolution. A digital revolution perhaps?
Q: How have these technological, industrial and cultural shifts affected the middle-class?
A: I would say that definitely in today’s environment we see a shrinking middle class and we don’t see the opportunities growing in the middle class as they used to. The middle class has always been affected. I think the middle class has generally been the victim of increased productivity. That hurts the middle-class jobs. On the other hand though, it makes things cheaper and easier to acquire. It is kind of a double-edged sword.
Q: Has anything historically helped the country adjust when a large portion of good paying jobs suddenly disappear?
A: Some of these social programs have helped provide some security for the middle class. Programs like Social Security, programs like Medicare have helped particularly those of retirement age maintain a middle class status. Also, I think it is that person that has a broad based education that has the skills and tools they need to adapt. I think that communication skills are absolutely vital now. The ability to write effectively, do research, think critically, are all skills technology can’t really replicate.
Q: Is there a technological revolution in our future?
A: We’re in the middle of it right now. You almost can say this has began a process that will just continue. But I’m always cautious to say that things will just always continue to accelerate at a faster and faster pace. We just can’t predict what sorts of changes this is going to bring about.
Historically, technological advance has long meant better productivity and therefore less need for workers. But society has adjusted. And though technology has cost the nation jobs, it is in no small way responsible for creating them, too, pointed out Casey Corbett, associate professor of computer graphics and web design at Washington State Community College.
Q: What are some current examples of jobs that have been cut due to technology, such as computers, digital equipment, robotics, etc.?
A: The biggest thing that I notice changing, especially in the gaming industry, is more and more mobile applications. We’re going from teams of a couple hundred people that are making games like Halo to one or two people who are making little, successful games. Rovio (a video game developer) started with three people and blossomed to (popular mobile game) Angry Birds. Big companies like Xbox are worried that people are playing games on their cell phone. Just last weekend we had a big game company lay off a bunch of people.
Q: So how has technology contributed to employment?
A: As far as spurring jobs, I think the biggest thing we’re noticing is that we’re leaning more toward the independent technology. Everything is going application based. Most of those are made by independent small developers that are working from home. We don’t need (Electric Arts). We don’t need Nintendo. More and more people are working from their phones which is good because if somebody from Marietta wants to submit their own application to the App store, they can. And how many people are they going to hire? Rovio was founded in 2003 by three people. They have hired a ton of people.
Q: What sorts of tech are we currently developing and what sort of jobs could they affect?
A: They just released a law in California that allow autonomous vehicles to be on the road for the purpose of testing them. I’d say within at least 15 years we’ll see autonomous vehicles on the streets.
Q: Could they replace driving jobs, such as mail carriers or truckers?
A: I don’t think so. If so, it’s going to be a while. I just think people don’t really trust autonomous vehicles yet. It’s so new. Once we see it and once it becomes part of our culture we may begin to trust it.
Q: What are some limitations humans face compared to technology?
A: Technology, nine times out of ten does not make mistakes. It is more accurate. It is always there on time. It doesn’t show up late for work. As far as technology goes, if we can get something that is automated that can do it consistently, then it is going to be more efficient.
Q: On the flip side, where does technology not stack up to a physical worker?
A: Where computers are deficient is the customer service area. Technology is not very good at working with people. So customer service positions will never ever, ever be taken over by a computer.
Q: Does technology make people’s jobs easier?
A: I think it makes your job more mobile. You don’t have to be sitting at your desk anymore. You can be walking around shopping and still checking your email. I think we’re moving from a more stationary job to a more get up and move around and enjoy life kind of job.
Q: Is there a technological revolution on our horizon and how do you think our society will adapt?
A: I think we’re on information overload already. Everyone is bombarded with information constantly. We’re getting texts, calls, stock quotes, etc. We are in a state of needing constant content. I think what we’re going to be moving toward are things like the new Google glasses, that you wear just like glasses and they constantly stream new information. As technology advances, it gets more user integrated.
SPECIAL REPORT: The Great Reset
Though technology can sometimes replace people in jobs, in some cases locally it’s increasing productivity of local businesses without making humans obsolete.
Throughout the country new technology and software developments have resulted in a steady decline of middle class positions such as secretaries, paralegals, meter readers and others. According to The Associated Press more than a million secretaries disappeared from the job market from 2000 to 2010.
These types of positions are being replaced by machines that can compute and store data faster, more efficiently and cheaper than any worker. Locally, however the impact of technology on the job market hasn’t been as severe in several industries.
While technology has improved, there are just as many workers in Marietta’s Water and Wastewater department as there were several years ago, said Kim Nohe, utilities administrator with the department.
“We have seven total employees, three of which are meter readers,” Nohe said. “We’ve implemented some new technologies and software over the past few years but it hasn’t caused any of our employees to lose a position.”
Part of the city of Marietta’s meters are now using radio transmitters allowing employees to simply drive past them in order to obtain a reading.
“New technology allows us to make our jobs simpler and expedite the rate at which we operate,” Nohe said. “This process isn’t taking away our jobs but rather allowing us to do them more efficiently.”
Efficiency is key for organizations and industries going forward in a world where new technology aims to lower costs and increase productivity.
The Ohio Department of Transportation is responsible for nearly 5,000 employees and maintains one of the largest interstate systems in the country.
David Rose, ODOT’s District 10 public information officer, stressed the importance of maintaining a balance between employees and new technology.
“We are a public agency that is funded with state gas tax dollars, so our goal is always to operate as efficiently as possible,” he said. “If that requires the implementation of new software to go along with our workforce then we believe that is the best course of action.”
Recently the department introduced a new piece of software called Safetyanalyst, which allows the organization to more easily track and sort large amounts of data.
“It provides us with tools that help us identify and prioritize areas that are unsafe and need to be improved,” Rose said.
Although the Safetyanalyst software helps sort and manage data on problem areas it’s the workforce for ODOT that keeps things running smoothly.
“We are a very tangible organization. You can see us out plowing the roads in the winter and maintaining them when something needs fixed,” Rose said. “Technology doesn’t drive those plows or fix those roads. It takes a great deal of manpower to handle the tasks before us.”
Health care is another field that is rapidly growing and constantly integrating new forms of technology into the workplace.
“Technology is a part of everything we do on a daily basis,” said Jennifer Offenberger, director of marketing and public relations for the Memorial Health System.
An electronic health record has recently been started, allowing doctor’s offices from the hospital easy access to patient’s medical information.
“Advances in technology allow us to save more lives and care for patients in ways we never thought possible,” Offenberger said. “We don’t see the development of new technology as a threat here.”
New software is changing procedure and the way work is done, but it isn’t costing Memorial Health System employees jobs, she said.
“If anything we view it as opening up opportunities for people to help develop and implement these new technologies.” Offenberger said. “Our goal always is and will be to streamline the process so that our patients continue to get the best level of care possible.”
One local business has managed to survive and thrive in this age of technology by sticking with the methods it was founded upon.
Brad Smith is the owner of Sewah Studios, a local business that specializes in the creation of historical markers. Smith said he has struggled to balance the growing need for technology in modern industry with the company’s loyalty to creating a hand crafted product.
“Most companies similar to ours have switched to plastics and laser generating designs in the hopes of cutting costs or increasing productivity,” he said. “We have been doing it the same since the ’50s and our customers have grown accustomed to our unique touch.”
Smith admits that technology does play a role in his business, but it takes a backseat to the 15 workers he employs.
“It makes a huge difference in the accounting, planning and office type of stuff,” Smith said. “We understand that technology is always evolving and can be an important supplement to our company, but we also realize that it could be the death of our business.”
SPECIAL REPORT: The Great Reset
Despite national and even global trends that suggest the availability of middle-class jobs is diminishing, many area officials believe the Mid-Ohio Valley has and will continue to be a viable place for steady, well-paying jobs.
“We’re kind of an aberration I’m thinking, Washington County. We have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state,” said Terry Tamburini, executive director of the Southeastern Ohio Port Authority.
In December, Washington County logged an unemployment rate of 7.1 percent, not quite as good as the state average of 6.8 percent; however, Washington County is fairing much better than neighboring Morgan (11.1 percent), Noble (9.7 percent), and Monroe (10.1 percent) counties.
Employers planning to hire students directly out of college is estimated to increase 13 percent this year, said Hilles Hughes, director of the Marietta College Career Center.
“I think the economy has gotten better based on the context I’m working with. Certainly it is better than it was in 2008, 2009,” said Hughes, who mainly works on job placement with traditional college students.
A declining unemployment rate falls in line with the national trend. What sets the region apart, said Tamburini, is the quality of the job openings.
Nationally, nearly three quarters of new job growth is in areas considered low-paying, with salaries under $37,000, according to The Associated Press.
Locally, the steady march of Marcellus shale drilling has resulted in desirable positions not only inside the oil and gas industry, but in peripheral industries as well, said Tamburini.
Many of those jobs are middle class positions, or better.
For example, Mike Elliot, secondary director of the Washington County Career Center, said welders that help piece together pipelines for the industry are in high demand.
The school’s welding program is placing the most students directly into “first placement” programs, which allow students to get class credit for paid work in their field, he said.
“We’re all kind of waiting for this gas boom to take off. And if you can weld, you can certainly be employed, and the wages are there,” said Elliot.
Many welders, with overtime, can earn a six-figure salary, placing them beyond middle class, he said.
The loss of many of the middle class jobs has been attributed to technological advances, replacing or at least lessening the need for human work.
And even outside of the oil and gas industry, the career center is preparing students for middle class jobs that show no signs of slowing down, he said.
Another booming program at the school is health information technology, which trains students in billing, medical records, insurance, electronic filing and more.
The Memorial Health System, which encompasses two local hospitals and several other health care facilities, has experienced exponential employment growth over the past five to 10 years, said Jennifer Offenberger, director of marketing and public relations for the system.
About a third of the system’s jobs fall into the middle class category, defined as $37,000 to $68,000 in wages.
According to The Associated Press, the loss of many middle class jobs has been directly related to advancements in technology, either lessening or completely doing away with the need for human workers.
But there are certain human actions that technology can never replace, and kneeling by the bed of a sick patient, giving comfort and care is one of them, said Tricia Engfehr, director of human resources for the Memorial Health System.
“We don’t believe that technology can deliver the care,” said Engfehr.
From the hospital’s perspective, the increase in technology has increased the need for people, not decreased it, she added.
“At the end of the day, you still need people to develop the technology and know how to use it on a day to day basis,” said Offenberger.
But while jobs, and good paying ones, may still be readily available in this area, people need to be ready to step up to the plate, said Elliot.
The career center’s health information system program evolved from what was once the secretarial school, and that evolution has meant a broader scope of learning for the students, he said.
“You’re having to do more than just answer the phone or make an appointment. That person is required to do more in different areas,” said Elliot.
At Washington-Morgan Community Action, director of employment and training, Kathy Gramkow, has noticed that more skills are now needed to find well-paying jobs.
“The days of just going around and putting in applications, that’s not a job search anymore. Now they do personality assessments, team work assessments, skill assessments,” noted Gramkow.
While those mid-pay jobs that are disappearing nationally are still available locally, applicants that fail to keep up with the technology now infiltrating so many career fields will be the ones who have a hard time getting into those jobs, she said.