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As jobs become more automated, how will workers adjust?

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A person shakes hand with a robot.

"Don't fear the march of the robots, but worry instead that too many workers will be left to their own devices in dealing with massive job changes driven by automation," says Chris Farrell, Marketplace's senior economics contributor. Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP

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Job automation is accelerating and a number of companies are starting to mix robots into their workforces. But automation doesn’t just look like a self-checkout counter at the grocery store or an order screen at a fast food joint.

Now, amid economywide labor shortages, companies in numerous sectors are looking to add some nonhuman help. A 2013 Oxford University study said that 47% of jobs in the United States were at risk of automation.

So how long before WALL-E or R2-D2 take over the workplace? While automation may not cause mass job losses, new technology will change the types of jobs and skills needed in the workplace, according to a recent study by economist Michael Handel.

“[Handel] concludes the fear that automation will cause widespread job loss has been greatly exaggerated in the past, and this time, he expects that history will repeat itself,” Chris Farrell, senior economics contributor, told “Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio. “But most of the time, technology alters the mix of jobs and needed worker skills.”

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

David Brancaccio: Science fiction has always loved this right? Not just robots, but tech in the workplace in general.

Chris Farrell: Right. And of course, you’ve seen the 1957 romantic comedy “Desk Set,” and it really captures that 1950s fear that mainstream computers would replace humans on the job.

Brancaccio: Yeah, well, 2022 fear. Machines kill off jobs, but we’re told they create many more jobs that are less backbreaking, less dangerous and reduced in drudgery. Now, that’s the standard economic view. But maybe this time is different.

Farrell: Well, the fear is clear, but the evidence and data less so. Take a widely cited economic study estimated that 47% of jobs are susceptible to automation between 2010 and 2030. So an economist—Michael Handel at the Bureau of Labor Statistics—he took a deep dive into those occupations most vulnerable to substitution by robots and AI—artificial intelligence. And his detailed studies looked at their job growth over the past two decades, and projected job growth rates from 2019 to 2029.

Brancaccio: So he looked at all this … who wins? Robots or humans?

Farrell: Well, he concludes the fear that automation will cause widespread job loss has been greatly exaggerated in the past, and this time, he expects that history will repeat itself. In a number of cases like personal financial advisers, technology complements the job and leads to job growth. In other cases, OK, [take] welders, technology is a substitute for workers. But most of the time, technology alters the mix of jobs and needed worker skills.

Brancaccio: All right. Now that last point about technology disrupting jobs and leading to changes in the labor market is a major theme of actually, you say, a lot of economic history studies?

Farrell: Absolutely. And the conclusion of so many economic history studies that I’ve looked at is that the main impact of technology is how much they change the skills needed in the job market.

Brancaccio: All right, but how do we get the skills to people who need the skills to compete with the machines?

Farrell: Here’s my takeaway. Don’t fear the march of the robots, but worry instead that too many workers will be left to their own devices in dealing with massive job changes driven by automation. You know, you can have some innovative, well-funded policy interventions like wage insurance and wage subsidies and investments in expanding apprenticeships and worker training programs. Actions like these will help workers share in the job-generating benefits of automation.

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