Automation and its impact on the future of American jobs

Katie Couric
Global Anchor

By Alexandra Zaslow

Man versus machine: It’s a story that’s as old as time.

Throughout the past two centuries, automation has made manufacturing cheaper and easier.

The Industrial Revolution ushered in an era of unprecedented progress, but just as factories replaced manual labor, technology is now taking the place of factory workers.

In fact, since 2000, nearly 5 million factory jobs have disappeared. An Oxford University study suggests that 20 years from now, almost half of all U.S. jobs will have been replaced by machines.

But don’t panic: Here’s what you need to know about automation nation.

First, it’s nothing new. Even back in 1960, John F. Kennedy wondered what the future would hold.

“What happens to man when machines take their place?” Kennedy said during a 1960 presidential debate.

We’ve seen this movie before: Horse and buggies replaced by cars. Elevator operators replaced by buttons. Many bank tellers replaced by ATMs.

Technology, more specifically the Internet, has displaced everyone from travel agents to retail workers to librarians.

Even President Obama brought it up in his farewell speech, saying, “The next wave of economic dislocations won’t come from overseas. It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good middle class jobs obsolete.”

But the current administration doesn’t think the situation is quite as dire.

“In terms of artificial intelligence taking over American jobs,” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said during an interview. “I think we are so far away from that… [It’s] not even on my radar screen.”

Regardless, it is on a lot of people’s radar screens, and the whole country is figuring out what to do about it.

It’s not all bad news, though. Forrester Research found that automation will actually create about 15 million U.S. jobs during the next decade. But that’s going to require skill sets that fit those new job requirements.

According to a new Pew study, almost 9 in 10 American workers think they’ll need training to stay competitive in the 21st century job market — and they’re right.

But now, the U.S. government spends less than 1 percent of the GDP on worker training and retraining. Denmark spends 18 times as much, France, 12 times as much; and Germany, seven times.

Meanwhile, former President Obama proposed investing $4 billion in computer science training for grade schools, but congress didn’t approve that money.

People are paying attention, though. Degrees in math and science are on the rise. Between 2009 and 2013, they increased by nearly 20 percent — double that of other subjects.

But the bottom line is this: If you want to be employable, you need the skills that will equip you for the future.

Let’s start working with machines, rather than against them.

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