Nobody likes to think their job could someday be taken over by a robot or a machine.
Yet, that possibility is quite real in Terre Haute. Only 20 cities in America have a workforce with a higher percentage of jobs at risk of displacement through automation. That’s the findings of a new report from the Brookings Institution, “Automation and Artificial Intelligence: How Machines Are Affecting People and Places.” Terre Haute ranks 21st in vulnerability, while sister Hoosier cities Kokomo and Elkhart rank second and third, respectively, and Michigan City-LaPorte 13th, close behind No. 1 Dalton, Ga. Evansville, Fort Wayne and Muncie are in the top 100.
Among states, Indiana tops the list in its percentage of jobs with automation potential, meaning the share of tasks involved in doing a job that could be automated with existing technology. Jobs rated low-risk have fewer than 30 percent of their tasks that could be automated, followed by middle-risk (30 to 70 percent) and high-risk (70 percent or more).
Nearly one-third of Terre Haute jobs are rated high-risk.
Brookings’ report explains that automation and artificial intelligence (or AI) technology neither dooms an average worker’s occupational future nor brightens it. Instead, the situation is more complex.
For example, a robotic co-worker can handle some of a human’s more repetitive tasks, freeing people to handle more creative duties. By contrast, workers whose entire roles involve physical, routine tasks will need to accept retraining opportunities when automation displaces their jobs. Education must continue through a person’s lifetime.
“If folks aren’t willing to go back and get re-skilled, we’ve got problems,” said Rachel Blakeman, director of the Community Research Institute at Purdue University-Fort Wayne. Likewise, communities and states must ask themselves, “Are we providing programs enabling [re-skilling] to happen?”
The study analyzed the past, present and future effects of automation, going back to 1980 and projecting ahead through 2030. Jobs listed as having the highest potential to be changed by automation could remain as-is for years or longer depending on each town’s different economic base. “It’s not something where these jobs are in jeopardy next week,” Blakeman said.
“So we’ve got time,” she added, “but we don’t have forever.”
The realities of automation altering the U.S. job market are not new. Industries automate “with the aim of increasing the quality and quantity of output at a reduced cost,” Brookings stated.
“That’s been going on since the beginning of the industrial revolution [in the 19th century] as people find better ways to get things done. Now, the pace has accelerated, though,” said Steve Witt, president of the Terre Haute Economic Development Corp.
Retraining laid-off, middle-age Hoosiers has been on Indiana’s workforce development radar for most of the 21st century and especially since the Great Recession. Also, the Indiana Department of Workforce Development projects that by 2024, more than a million jobs in the state will need filled. The situation led to several initiatives like WorkINdiana, a state adult education program that gives participants the chance to earn high school equivalency degrees and vocational certificates.
Such efforts and others in high schools and Ivy Tech Community College could give thousands of Hoosiers options when their occupations change or disappear. Education “is a significant buffer for a family, and education is a significant buffer for a community,” Blakeman said.
Terre Haute’s economy features a significant number of occupations susceptible to automation. Production jobs ranked at the top, followed by those in food service, transportation, administrative, maintenance and construction. Those categories are broad. Production includes everything from machine operators to engine assemblers and gas plant operators. Administrative encompasses legal secretaries, dispatchers and bookkeepers.
Vigo County’s labor force totaled 61,212 people in 2017, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Of those, manufacturing accounted for 6,605 jobs; food services and accommodation 5,684; construction 2,811; professional and technical services 1,789; transportation and warehousing 1,561; and wholesale trade 1,305. Many of those workers’ livelihoods rate as vulnerable to automation.
In most cases, positions requiring college and vocational degrees are more secure, Brookings projected. Still, some lower-paying jobs demand a human touch, such as personal care of the elderly and some domestic service work. The question is, “can a robot do your job? Can a computer do your job?” Blakeman said.
In southern Vigo County, about 220 people work at Steel Dynamics Inc, a cold-roll steel finishing plant. A similar facility in the 1970s might have required more than 700 employees to do the same tasks, Witt estimated. “Because of the progress of technology and automation, the number of employees it takes to run a plant like that has gone down,” he said.
Automation isn’t going to stop, either. The Brookings report emphasizes that the effects won’t be evenly distributed across the country and globe. Some cities and states will face greater changes than others. Some demographic groups will absorb the brunt, too. Men and young people fill the majority of jobs with high-risk potential for automation — production, transportation and construction.
Still, few vocations — aside from professional athletes, ministers, composers and models — are shielded from automation. “No industry is immune to that,” Witt said. And, he emphasized, Terre Haute could add human jobs through new industries utilizing robotics and AI technology.
The Brookings findings illuminate the need to ask, “What does the next 20, 30, 50 years of the Indiana economy look like?” Blakeman said. Terre Haute did some of that in 2015 with the compilation of the Terre Haute Tomorrow “community plan.” That was four years ago, though. Last month, during the Chamber of Commerce’s annual “City Update” breakfast, Mayor Duke Bennett mentioned the need to renew efforts to implement the Terre Haute Tomorrow plan.
Brookings offers objectives for communities and states to deal with the stresses of automation, like investing funds into retraining and supporting displaced workers, making skill development education affordable and expand “income supports” for workers in low-paying jobs (perhaps like raising the minimum wage).
Preparing people and economies for automation isn’t simple. It involves training people “for jobs that don’t even exist today,” Witt said. “It’s not an easy task, but I think collectively we’ll rise to the occasion.”