EDITOR'S NOTE: Second in a three-part series on the loss of middle-class jobs in the wake of the Great Recession, and the role of technology.
WASHINGTON — Art Liscano knows he's an endangered species in the job market: He's a meter reader in Fresno, Calif. For 26 years, he's driven from house to house, checking how much electricity Pacific Gas & Electric customers have used.
But the utility doesn't need many people making rounds anymore. Every day, the utility replaces 1,200 old-fashioned meters with digital versions that can collect information without human help, generate more accurate power bills and send an alert if the power goes out.
“I can see why technology is taking over,” says Liscano, 66, who earns $67,000 a year. “We can see the writing on the wall.” His department had 50 full-time meter readers six years ago. Now it has six.
From giant corporations to university libraries to start-up businesses, employers are using rapidly improving technology to do tasks humans used to do. Millions of workers are caught in a competition they can't win against machines that keep getting more powerful, cheaper and easier to use.
To better understand the impact of technology on jobs, The Associated Press analyzed employment data from 20 countries; and interviewed economists, technology experts, robot manufacturers, software developers, CEOs and workers who are competing with smarter machines.
The AP found that almost all the jobs disappearing are in industries that pay middle-class wages, from $38,000 to $68,000 — jobs that form the backbone of the middle class in developed countries in Europe, North America and Asia.
In the United States, half of the 7.5 million jobs lost in the Great Recession paid middle-class wages, and the numbers are more grim in the 17 European countries that use the euro as their currency. A total of 7.6 million midpay jobs disappeared in those countries from January 2008 through last June.
Those jobs are being replaced in many cases by machines and software that can do the same work better and cheaper.
Google and Toyota are rolling out cars that can drive themselves. The Pentagon deploys robots to find roadside explosives in Afghanistan and wages war from the air with drone aircraft. North Carolina State University has introduced a high-tech library where “bookBots” retrieve books when students request them.
In the U.S., more than 1.1 million secretaries vanished from the job market between 2000 and 2010, their job security shattered by software that lets bosses field calls themselves and arrange their own meetings and trips. Over the same period, the number of telephone operators plunged by 64 percent, word processors and typists by 63 percent, travel agents by 46 percent and bookkeepers by 26 percent, according to Labor Department statistics.
In Europe, technology is shaking up human resources departments. “It used to be that you could walk into the employee affairs office with a question about your pension, or the terms of your contract. That's all gone and automated,” says Ron van Baden, a negotiator with the Dutch labor union federation FNV.
Here's a look at three technological factors reshaping the economies and job markets in developed countries.
At the heart of the biggest technological changes is what computer scientists call “Big Data.” Computers thrive on information, and they're feasting on an unprecedented amount of it — from the Internet, Twitter messages and other social media sources, from bar codes and sensors being slapped on things from boxes of Huggies diapers to stamping machines in car plants.
A Harvard Business Review article by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said more information now crosses the Internet every second than the entire Internet stored 20 years ago. Every hour, they note, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. collects 50 million filing cabinets' worth of information from its dealings with customers.
No human could make sense of so much data. But computers can. They can sift through mountains of information and deliver valuable insights to decision-makers in businesses and government agencies.
“What's different to me is the raw amount of data out there because of the Web, because of these devices, because we're attaching sensors to things,” says McAfee, principal research scientist at MIT's Center for Digital Business and co-author of “Race Against the Machine.” “The fuel of science is data. We have so much more of that rocket fuel.”
So far, public attention has focused on the potential threats to privacy as companies use technology to gather clues about their customers' buying habits and lifestyles.
“What is less visible,” says software entrepreneur Martin Ford, “is that organizations are collecting huge amounts of data about their internal operations and about what their employees are doing.” The computers can use that information to “figure out how to do a great many jobs” that humans do now.
As recently as five years ago, businesses that had to track lots of information needed to install servers in their offices and hire technical staff to run them.
“Cloud computing” has changed everything. Now, companies can store information on the Internet — perhaps through Amazon Web Services or Google App Engine — and grab it when they need it. They don't need to hire experts.
Cloud computing “is a catchall term for the ability to rent as much computer power as you need without having to buy it, without having to know a lot about it,” McAfee says. “It really has opened up very high-powered computing to the masses.”
Small businesses, with no budget for a big technology department, are especially eager to take embrace the cheap computer power offered in the cloud.
Though many are still working out the kinks, software is making machines and devices smarter every year. They can learn your habits, recognize your voice, do the things that travel agents, secretaries and interpreters have traditionally done.
Besides becoming more powerful and creative, machines and their software are becoming easier to use.
People who used to say “Let me talk to a person. I don't want to deal with this machine” are now using check-in kiosks at airports and self-checkout lanes at supermarkets and drugstores, says Jeff Connally, CEO of CMIT Solutions, a technology consultancy, adding: The most important change in technology is “the profound simplification of the user interface.”