Will Advances in Technology Put People Out of Work or Give Them New Purpose?

October 01, 2017

Will Advances in Technology Put People Out of Work or Give Them New Purpose?

By Olivia Berlin 

Welcome to the fourth Industrial Revolution. Cars are driving themselves, scanners have replaced clerks and cashiers, and 3-D printers are spewing out everything from medical models and musical instruments to firearms and high-heeled shoes. Discoveries in artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, genetics and biotechnology are coalescing, resulting in dramatic changes in how we live, play and work.

As these technological innovations plow—or, rather, hoverboard—forward, more and more jobs are being automated. The result is a widespread, and not totally unfounded, fear that these advances will put millions of people out of work.

Automation isn’t inherently a bad thing, of course. Historically, new technology has led to new jobs, greater efficiency, increased productivity and higher living standards across the country. But some believe this time it’s different. This time it’s happening much more quickly and affecting a wider variety of jobs.

According to a 2016 jobs report by the World Economic Forum, “The accelerating pace of technological, demographic and socioeconomic disruption is transforming industries and business models, changing the skills that employers need and shortening the shelf-life of employees’ existing skill sets in the process.” Even jobs that are less directly affected by technological change, the report says, may require that workers learn new skills in the coming years.

Which Jobs and Why?

In a widely publicized 2013 study, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne, from Oxford University, surveyed 702 occupations and found that 47 percent of American workers had jobs with a higher than average risk of being automated in the coming years. In addition to manufacturing jobs, they included service, sales, office, administrative and transportation jobs, as well as some construction and financial jobs.

Which Jobs?

The probability of certain occupations being automated,
with 0 being not probable and 1 being certain. 

Job Probability

Recreational therapists




Athletic trainers




Chemical engineers








Health technologists




Commercial pilots




Word processors and typists


Real-estate sales agents


Technical writers


Retail salespeople


Accountants and auditors




Source: “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation,” by C. Frey and M. Osborne (2013)


“What determines vulnerability to automation is not so much whether the work concerned is manual or white-collar, but whether or not it is routine,” Frey and Osborne write.

Among the hardest jobs to automate are those requiring high-level STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills, but don’t worry if you’re not a math whiz. Also difficult to automate are jobs that call for creativity or the yet-to-be-replicated “human touch.” These include “caring” professions that rely on meaningful social interactions and an ability to empathize and exhibit emotion. Teachers, clergy, home health aides and social workers all are professionals with a less than 10 percent chance of being replaced by machines in the next 20 years, according to the Oxford scholars.

The World Economic Forum agrees. “Overall, social skills—such as persuasion, emotional intelligence and teaching others—will be in higher demand across industries than narrow technical skills, such as programming or equipment operation and control.”

Re-employment, the New Normal

Although Frey and Osborne focused on jobs lost to automation, plenty of others predict that computerization will create a variety of new jobs. In past industrial revolutions, technology has been a “great job-creating machine,” according to a 2015 study by the consulting company Deloitte. This revolution likely will be no different. The most recent wave of automation—the advent of the World Wide Web in the 1990s—transformed the fields of publishing, journalism and retail sales, to name a few, but also opened the door for internet giants like Google, Facebook and Amazon, which collectively employ nearly 450,000 people and are worth more than $1 trillion.

Economist James Bessen argues that rather than destroying jobs, automation redefines them in ways that reduce costs and boost demand. There was much concern in the 1970s, for example, when banks unveiled ATMs. Bank tellers feared becoming a thing of the past. Bessen reminds us, however, that even though the introduction of the machines initially lowered the number of tellers needed, the money the banks saved by hiring fewer tellers eventually allowed them to open more branches, which required more tellers. In the end, the number of tellers actually increased by an average of 2 percent annually between 2000 and 2010.

Automation will not increase demand for every job, of course. Rather than eliminating jobs completely, automation may just affect part of a job, or shift demand from one job to another. For example, since the 1980s “there are fewer telephone operators, but more receptionists; there are fewer typesetters, but more graphic designers,” Bessen says.

With nearly half of American jobs susceptible to at least partial automation, how can we ensure workers will still have jobs five, 10 or 15 years from now? How do we help workers become more re-employable?

“To prevent a worst-case scenario—technological change accompanied by talent shortages, mass unemployment and growing inequality—reskilling and upskilling of today’s workers will be critical,” the World Economic  Forum warns. “It is simply not possible to weather the current technological revolution by waiting for the next generation’s workforce to become better prepared.”

State Solutions

State legislatures are looking at how to make higher education more accessible to their constituents, since research indicates that in less than five years nearly 70 percent of all jobs could require some kind of post-secondary training, a certificate or a degree. In addition, lawmakers are strategically directing job-training programs toward the future needs of local businesses and industries.

Workers understand the importance of education as well. In a 2016 Pew Research Center survey, “The State of American Jobs,” 87 percent of workers said it would be essential for them to get training and develop new job skills throughout their lives to keep up with changes in the workplace.

With all the research indicating noncognitive social skills—“soft” skills, like character, dependability and perseverance—are just as important in the workplace as cognitive skills, many colleges and universities are  using methods you may remember from grade school, such as group projects and small-group discussions. More and more, in today’s—and tomorrow’s—labor market, a good education will be measured not only by academic test scores, but also by students’ ability to “play well with others.”

Dual Enrollment, Double Delight

One way to increase access to higher education is to get students started early. Minnesota lawmakers were the first to enact legislation creating the Post-Secondary Enrollment Options program in 1985, allowing 11th- and 12th-grade students to enroll in college courses while still attending high school, and to graduate high school with an associate degree. The idea caught on. As of March 2016, 47 states and the District of Columbia had policies on dual enrollment. Alaska, New Hampshire and New York, which don’t have statewide policies, allow educational institutions to decide whether to offer dual-enrollment.

Some programs are more comprehensive than others. “Twenty-one states have comprehensive policies with few course restrictions, liberal credit-granting policies and minimal (or no) student fees,” according to a paper issued by the U.S. Department of Education. “Twenty-six states have ‘limited policies,’ which do not provide funding for student tuition and have more restrictions on credit and student access.”

In addition to dual enrollment, Iowa’s comprehensive Senior Year Plus policy offers part-time concurrent enrollment and career academies for students in grades nine through 12. In 2011, the General Assembly enacted the STEM Scale-Up initiative to encourage schools to adopt state-endorsed programs such as the one developed by Project Lead the Way, a nonprofit that offers activities to inspire K-12 students to pursue careers in engineering, computer science or biomedical science.

“These programs have provided additional opportunities for students to be workforce ready in career and technical areas or to give them a head start on college coursework,” says Iowa Senator Amy Sinclair (R), who chairs the Education Committee. “This helps reduce student debt and … furthers the state’s goal of having a skilled workforce available for growing the economy.”

Tuition-Free College

The Tennessee Promise program, launched in 2014, offers free tuition to recent high school graduates enrolled at any of the state’s 13 community colleges or 27 technical colleges. The state also offers a mentorship program as part of the Promise scholarships to help students in choosing a college, a major and other decisions. Legislation called Reconnect, passed this spring, expands the program to include students age 24 and older, making the Volunteer State the first to offer free tuition to all adults. Both the Promise and Reconnect programs are funded by proceeds from the state lottery.

The programs are part of the Drive to 55 initiative, launched by Governor Bill Haslam (R) in 2013, that aims to get 55 percent of Tennesseans equipped with a college degree or certificate by the year 2025. “It’s not just a mission for higher education,” the initiative’s website reads, “but a mission for Tennessee’s future workforce and economic development.”

Tennessee Senator Mark Norris (R), who sponsored the legislation creating the Promise and Reconnect programs, as well as the state’s Labor Education Alignment Program, believes the efforts will give Tennesseans a competitive advantage in the workforce. “Offering a relevant education in today’s economy for tomorrow’s marketplace is essential,” he says. “[We are] making sure our schools are properly incentivized, equipped and funded to graduate citizens with the proper attitude, aptitude and skills necessary to work … in the 21st century.”

This year, New York became the first state to offer free tuition at two- and four-year public institutions through a fund called the Excelsior Scholarship. More than 940,000 low- and middle-income students from families making up to $125,000 annually will qualify for tuition-free college so long as they:

  •  Are residents of New York
  •  Attend a SUNY or CUNY two- or four-year degree program
  • Take 30 credits per calendar year (including January and summer sessions)
  • Plan to live and work in New York following graduation for the length of time they participate in the scholarship program

Besides New York and Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Oregon and Rhode Island also offer statewide tuition-free college programs.

Work-Based Learning

Apprenticeship programs have been around for nearly a century, giving workers an opportunity to “earn and learn,” to get paid a living wage while working alongside accredited professionals to learn their trade. They are traditionally offered in construction-related fields such as electricity, plumbing and carpentry. But apprenticeships are not just for the trades anymore. Nationwide, there are registered apprenticeships for more than 950 occupations in child care, telecommunications, hospitality and health care, among other fields.

In 2007, South Carolina began expanding its existing apprenticeship programs to include non-traditional occupations. Apprenticeship Carolina now offers close to 900 registered apprenticeships through all 16 of the state’s technical colleges, targeting industries such as manufacturing, energy, health care, information technology, tourism and services, and transportation, along with construction.

Businesses that employ an apprentice can take an income tax credit of up to $1,000 per apprentice for four years. The apprentice must be employed for at least seven months.

Another game changer is the rise of partnerships in which leaders from business, labor, education and community-based organizations work together to develop market-driven employment, training and education services that address the needs of a state’s local industries. Rhode Island has the most extensive program on a per capita basis, according to Bryan Wilson of the National Skills Coalition. The Rhode Island program also provides staff to help job seekers understand the job market, select career paths suited to their objectives and find the skills training needed to help them get a job.

As of July 2017, 35 states offered some kind of work-based learning policy, according to the National Skills Coalition.

Back to the Future

So, will this wave of automation be the end of work as we know it? Or will new technologies give rise to millions of jobs we can’t even imagine? Experts’ predictions were split nearly in half, according to a recent story in The Economist. Most tech workers tend to believe the former, while most economists and historians predict the latter. More than likely, we will end up somewhere in between.

Regardless, we must find a way to adapt, as we always have done, to our changing environment. “Disruption can be advantageous,” Norris, the Tennessee senator, says. “In today’s world of automation and advanced manufacturing, anticipating the needs of business and industry is the name of the game. It requires looking beyond, not at, the horizon.”

As we ride out this fourth wave of automation, state governments will play a crucial role in helping their workers and students succeed. And many states are already well on their way.

Olivia Berlin is a senior at Colorado College majoring in creative writing. She was a summer intern in NCSL’s Communications Division.

Correction: Oct. 4, 2017
This article was changed to correct a reference to Mark Norris as being a senator from Iowa. He is from Tennessee.