February 22, 2016
Lower Paid Jobs At Greater Risk Of Automation

See: The robots are coming for jobs that pay $20 an hour or less, White House finds. The probability of your job getting automated is higher if you get paid less.

This might seem counter-intuitive since the cost of capital to replace your labor has to be much lower if your labor isn't worth much in the first place. But some lower paid tasks are simpler (at least in some respects) and therefore easier to automate.

It used to be that robots couldn't do the image processing and coordinated moves required to replace manual laborers in many tasks (e.g. picking fruit from trees). But that's changing. If you are getting paid poorly you need to think seriously about developing skills that will let you shift into an occupation that will survey the coming robot onslaught.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2016 February 22 10:41 PM 

BernardZ said at February 23, 2016 2:22 AM:

It's the repetitive nature of the job not the education. For example, when I first started working professionally 40 years ago I noticed that the first to go where the highly educated accountants as accounting software replaced them, next the secretarial pool as word processors came in, after that the draftsman as drawing programs appeared, engineers as the design programs improved and so on. While all this was going on the security guards, the retail salespeople, the store men and the cleaners remained.

If you look through this list of the fastest growing professions today, most are not highly educated. What it is, are they are not repetitive.


bob sykes said at February 23, 2016 4:15 AM:

I agree with BernardZ. I am a retired engineer, and I lived through the computer revolution of the 60s, 70s and 80s. Draftsmen, secretaries, accountants, surveyors and engineers disappeared, and engineering companies got much bigger and went international. Today a big company has offices throughout the world, and work is shuttled from one office to another via the internet. This greatly speeds up the design process, and, more importantly, allows the company to use low cost Asian or Latin American engineers instead of expensive American or European ones. Management retains its jobs. H1B visas allow cost reduction right here, and many American IT professionals are walking the streets. Disney just replaced all its American IT people with immigrants.

The revolution is also coming to medicine and law. Most junior lawyers are just doing data base searches, and Nexus/Lexus replaces them. A good deal of medical practice is diagnosis, which is another kind of data base search. Were it not for liability issues, cheap RNs would replace many expensive MDs. Something to thank the tort lawyers for.

For the last 30 years, the real income of working class people has been declining fairly rapidly, and millions of working class jobs have disappeared, forcing the people who had them into penury. Part of this is a result of women entering the workforce, but a rapidly growing economy could have handled that. The rest of the problem is automation, off-shoring jobs, globalization, free trade and open-border immigration. We continue to lose our industrial base. Ford will build engines in Mexico rather than Ohio. Ford claims this saves Ohio jobs. Maybe it does, but Ohio doesn't get any new jobs.

It is clear that our current trade and immigration policies are the most vicious anti-Black programs since Jim Crow, and have been a major factor in Black unemployment. Whites have also been impacted, and drug use among White working class and unemployed people has sky rocketed. For a long time, it was mainly meth. However, the war in Afghanistan has resulted in exponential growth in heroin supplies, and heroin is so cheap that it is now the drug of choice among poor whites.

The middle class is also suffering slow declines in real income, again due to our trade and immigration policies. Only the upper classes benefit, and they are firmly in control. The only non-Ruling Class candidates are Sanders and Trump. The Ruling Class will assassinate them rather than let them take office.

The decline in incomes for most people means that real per capita GDP is declining, too. The Ruling Class policies are actually failing. The Federal Reserve's and other central bank QE programs have famously failed to increase inflation. Evidently, we are in strong deflationary period, likely due to falling demand. China's problems may be partly home grown, but are largely due to declining demand for their exports. Note the near collapse of international shipping. A disaster is brewing.

Randall Parker said at February 23, 2016 7:12 PM:


I personally rarely interact with retail sales people any more because I do about 90% of my buying online. I even get a substantial fraction of my groceries delivered. I'm not alone. Retail space per person is shrinking. It may shrink by a third to a half in the next 5-10 years. That means fewer mall security guards too. But some of the security jobs are going to get automated too. Microsoft has begun using robot security guards. So that job will shrink. Cleaners too. Cleaning robot sales are growing rapidly.

Taxi drivers and truck drivers have their days numbered too. 20 years from now few people will work driving taxis or long haul trucks. Volvo is going to automate trash collection too. And of course the automation of agriculture will continue apace.

BernardZ said at February 24, 2016 12:50 AM:

I think there are two separate issues that are being discussed here. The first is, if the job can be done in another country cheaper. Now whether or not the engineer works in the US, Australia or in Latin America is not relevant to this topic but another topic of supporting first-world pay scales in a global economy.

I did like Bob Sykes's examples of law and medicine; I saw this happening in engineering design companies. 40 years ago, large engineering design teams were common. Now with much smaller staff the same, if not more designing can be done. My brother in law worked for a large accountancy firm specializing in tax returns, today he tells me his smaller accountancy firm does more tax returns then the larger one ever did.

This actually brings up another question if I am a extremely educated person, and my job is replaced by a computer; it's often very hard for me to do something else. A less trained person who gets replaced often has little trouble to change professions.


I take your point about retail sales people. I still even if I buy online, often ring or email sales people. If the item is big like a car or a property, I use them. If I need specialized help, for example, I go to a large hardware shop because they have ex-carpenters and plumbers serving who can help me. Since I have to try on clothes and shoes, I use them too in shoe and clothing shops, etc.

Security guards are not just in shopping malls. When I was a kid, no school had security guards, now many do, some schools currently have large teams of security guards. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the National-security industry employment has grown by 29 per cent in the past five years. This is not showing any sign of slowing down.

Cleaners again, I do expect some decline but not a lot. The other issue is I do expect that the market size will increase as people want cleaner places. When I was a kid, my family never had a cleaner, now we get a cleaner coming weekly.

I tend to agree with you about the rest and am not sure if we disagree about the question that automation will affect many highly educated people too.

Mark said at February 24, 2016 4:40 AM:

Interesting points. I remember when there were 100,000 typesetters and I needed a union stamp to clear the work for printers. They vanished almost over night in the mid 90s.
We started publishing legal materials on CD roms mid 90s. What took a team of legal researchers weeks, months, to do in a library could be done in minutes by one person in the comfort of their own office.and, more comprehensively.

Where are those librarians now? How many have vanished?

The UK court system has seen massive decline in employment numbers. A town had a court and huge numbers of staff. It's now done online and processed in a large warehouse in one place with a couple of judges/magistrates for the whole country.

It goes on...

Abelard Lindsey said at February 24, 2016 12:23 PM:

I think BernardZ is correct on much of this. It is easier to automate much of the professions and white collar work than it is blue collar work because the former is mostly information handling and manipulation, something that computers are designed to do. Much blue collar work is physical. Physical work is harder to automate because it involves both effective machine vision and complex motion control. These are capabilities that are coming, but will take time to implement effectively.

Also consider that automation has been ongoing incrementally in manufacturing since the 1970's and continues to grow in such an incremental fashion.

Consider that there is one manufacturing industry that still has essentially no automation. That industry is construction. Most of you guys want to automate transportation. I am puzzled by this as I have nothing against truck and taxi drivers. I want to automate the construction industry because I consider it to be a very rent-seeking parasitical industry that is in dire need of technological disruption. Don't even get me going on the medical and educational fields. These are even more rent-seeking parasitical and, thus, in even more dire need of disruptive innovation.

Solar Dude said at February 25, 2016 3:46 PM:

> Consider that there is one manufacturing industry that still has essentially no automation. That industry is construction.

I think that's very high on the type of things that can be automated. Large scale 3D printers will squirt cement and other building material in layers to produce a home. Most homes will mainly be cookie-cutter boxes to save on cost, but that's we get now with tract homes anyway. Once this technology gets underway, the cost building a home will plummet (The cost of repairing a home, though, will still be high).

Nick G said at March 7, 2016 3:44 PM:

Also consider that automation has been ongoing incrementally in manufacturing since the 1970's and continues to grow in such an incremental fashion

It helps keep things in perspective to remember that automation in manufacturing has been ongoing incrementally since about 1500. It's the primary place the Industrial Revolution happened.

Randall Parker said at March 10, 2016 10:41 PM:


Delayed response with several points.

Smarter people can retrain themselves most easily. But if their profession took years of training and paid really well then it could take them many years to get a new set of skills that pays as well.

I would be curious to know what is the long term trend in compensation for certified public accountants in the USA and their counterparts (chartered acccountants?) in English commonwealth countries. Demand rising or falling?

What is getting automated for skilled people: routine professions. e.g. pharmacy or bookkeeping. What is not getting automated for skilled people: software development. No matter how many dev tools get created we just write more software for more reasons. There is so much else in the world to automate that software development keeps on growing.

Buying shoes and clothes in stores: I haven't done this for years. I rarely get a pair of shoes that doesn't fit. Sure its a risk. But I save more time by buying online.

BernardZ said at March 12, 2016 2:20 AM:

Randall Parker

You certainly do bring up some interesting points here.

Let me say its very frustrating for a person who has trained for many years to be in a profession, to admit defeat and go somewhere else. Some people I have met are a mechanical engineer who ended up as an air-conditioning technician, a senior bank accountant who now is a cleaner and an electrical engineer who now after many years unemployment helps out part-time in an audio store. It is also a major economic waste. If this person say 50+, the odds are they will be looking at an early retirement.

A good site for what the outlooks of various professions are in Australia would be here.
I suspect the results displayed here would be similar in other first-world countries.

Demand is up.

I agree with you too about the routine jobs, if you have such a task, this is an ideal candidate for computer/software replacement.

However, this is not always necessary, for example, at work we require occasionally a statistician for projects. This is not routine work, and it is very adhoc What we found was it was better, quicker, cheaper and easier rather than get a statistician to use an analyst who is trained on the statistical program and who knows the project. The software now does the statistician's task.

Sales Assistants
Demand is up.

I do agree with Abelard Lindsey comment that it is easier to automate much of the profession and white-collar work than it is blue-collar work because the former is mostly information handling and manipulation rather than the blue collar which requires machine vision and complex motion control. I think he would agree with me that the other hold up is interactions with the public. People now are in helpdesk, looking up a computer and explaining to a member of the public what is in the computer. When computer programs are able to do well natural language processing, this will lead to conversational interactions with computer-based systems. Then I expect these jobs to start to go. Soon after that many positions in education and medicine will go too.

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