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Is automation really killing jobs?

A report from DC-based New America this spring made headlines when it released seemingly alarming data about automation and the impact on workforce. In Greater Phoenix, for example, the headline splashed across the Phoenix Business Journal stating more than a third of Arizona jobs could be at risk to automation over the next decade. The Wall Street Journal, however, is saying not so fast. In an article published in June, automation is changing the workforce, not eliminating it, according to the Journal.

The New America report specifically analyzes the metro Phoenix region, citing potential for jobs in the area, but also calling out that close to 35 percent of all jobs in the metro are at “high risk” of being replaced or altered, with a large number of these jobs being held by low-skilled workers. Yet, the Wall Street Journal story spoke with a number or small scale fast food chains and household brand name fast food chains, who said that automation is actually saving jobs in their industry.

Their reasoning is that the automation is lessening turnover, by having robots do menial tasks that often lead to job burnout or even boredom. For example, at one Dunkin’ Donuts location, the general manager said his employees could hand write thousands of labels each day for food freshness, which is the type of grunt work that leads to people tiring of the low-wage jobs. Now, they have small printers that dispense that information, eliminating the tedious task.

Ironically, management is seeing these shortcuts as ways to make the workers more personal with customers, now that they have time to spend in the restaurant itself. Spinning the pendulum the other direction, Panera Brad has seen an increase of 25,000 new jobs over the past two years, which they state is to handle the additional volume coming from digital orders.

In metro Phoenix, 81 percent of residents hold a high school diploma, compared to 87 percent nationally, and 27 percent hold a bachelor’s degree, compared to 31 percent nationally. Of the top 50 occupations that employ the most people in metro Phoenix, the occupations are at the highest risk of automation, including a large number of retail workers and cashiers. At the other end of the spectrum, the jobs at the lowest risk for automation including jobs in healthcare, education and technology.

The New America report does point out ways the Greater Phoenix workforce can sustain automation. For example, the region has 20 percent more workers in management positions than the national average, and 9 percent more workers in business and finance, which are considered low risk. There is also a larger number of workers in computers and mathematical positions.

The reality is, that all jobs are changing, and the skills required to do jobs today are far different than what was expected in the past. There is a need for post-secondary training at all levels – trades, certifications, associates degrees, and undergraduate and graduate degrees. Much like how there has been a shift from a reliance on consumption based industries to advanced industries, the more diversified the workforce is in Greater Phoenix, the better prepared our region will be.

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