Smart machines provide tough competition for middle-class workers

By PAUL WISEMAN, BERNARD CONDON and JONATHAN FAHEY Published: January 25, 2013
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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.

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.



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