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Will cities adapt when automation reshapes the job market?

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Many see the Rust Belt becoming the Robot Belt. Can local leaders adapt quickly enough?

An industrial robot at an automobile factory.

Watch out, Rust Belt: The robots are coming. And they’re after one of the more precious resources in these beleaguered U.S. manufacturing hubs: jobs.

That, at least, is the implication of a new analysis by the Brookings Institute, “Where the robots are,” that suggests the rise of robotics and automation will clobber the same areas hit by manufacturing’s decline, as technology radically changes how things get made (and how many workers are necessary to make them).

Since industrial robots work best where there’s industry, it’s no surprise they’re currently clustered in the Midwest and upper South, according to the article, key areas in auto manufacturing. Michigan alone accounts for 28,000 of the nation’s industrial robots, 12 percent of the total, and metro Detroit boasts 8.5 industrial robots per 1,000 workers.

The Rust Belt, as some have said, is becoming the Robot Belt, knocking another serious blow to the region, where cities, like Pittsburgh, have only in the last decade or so really bounced back with advanced manufacturing, innovation hubs, and attempts to diversify their economy. As Mark Munro, Senior Fellow and Policy Director at Brookings, puts it, “anxiety about robots—like their physical distribution—will also likely have its own geography.”

Brookings Institution

The Brookings study joins a chorus of stories predicting a new type of robot apocalypse, different than the one we see in science fiction. It’s man versus machine, with manufacturing, and many other parts of the economy at stake. The takes differ considerably, especially when it comes to which industries and sectors are most at risk, and how much we’re actually at risk: Some believe the real hits will come in transportation, storage, and retail, where more than 40 percent of jobs in these sectors will be replaceable due to this new wave of technology. Some reports even believe that these changes will result in economic growth and new job opportunities.

What all these predictions share, however, is a belief that we aren’t prepared for this shift toward automation. Automation has become a stand-in for economic anxiety, especially in areas that have already been hit by technological shifts, globalization, and increasing inequality. For city and local leaders, however, it should become a proxy for coming economic shifts, and challenge policymakers and corporate leaders to find the will to adjust. Like it or not, automation is making an impact and will only become more pronounced.

With the Trump administration more focused on changing trade policies as a means to improve employment and the economy—Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin has said this kind of technological displacement is “not even on [the administration’s] radar screen”—other levels of government need to step up.

Numerous other industries will likely be reshaped by automation, too, not just manufacturing. Telemarketers, insurance underwriters and appraisers, tax preparers, and cashiers may also be at risk, according to an Oxford University study. Many expect the retail industry, already clobbered by Amazon, to continue to shed jobs, according to a study by the Cornerstone Capital Group; up to 47 percent of the 16 million Americans currently working in retail could be made redundant.

What’s most distressing about these predictions is how automation’s impact is expected to move down the wage ladder; after hurting manufacturing employment, which often offered more stable and significant wages, now robots are coming after lower-wage jobs in the service sector. That’ll hurt some of the least well-off Americans, and based on the way certain industries have clustered, will mean some metro areas will feel the greatest effects, according to an analysis from the Institute for Spatial Economic Analysis.

Retail employment is growing compared to manufacturing, but it may be at risk due to automation.
Cornerstone Capital Group/IRRC Institute

In Las Vegas and Riverside-San Bernardino in California, for example, each of which relies heavily on many of these industries, 65 and 63 percent of total jobs are at stake. Other vulnerable cities include El Paso, Texas; Orlando, Florida; and Louisville, Kentucky.

“We felt it was really stunning, since we are underestimating the probability of automation,” said Johannes Moenius, the director of the Institute for Spatial Economic Analysis at the University of Redlands, told The Atlantic, about the extent of potential losses.

So many communities are still coping with early waves of technological shifts, manufacturing moves, and economic changes. How can cities recover while readying themselves for something perhaps more swift and unpredictable?

Many cities are trying to get ahead of the shift by pursuing and promoting new manufacturing and training initiatives to help prepare for the next generation of job shifts. Creating partnerships with regional educational leaders and corporate leaders to create new training and educational programs, and encouraging initiatives that focus on skills for new manufacturing can help build new job opportunities and new businesses.

As Vox’s Ezra Klein, who is skeptical that AI will lead to massive unemployment, wrote in a story this week, “as technology drives people out of the most necessary jobs, we invent less necessary jobs that we nevertheless imbue with profound meaning and even economic value.” Automation may create the conditions for new types of jobs; in that case, education and training become even more necessary to help weather and even take advantage of the transition.


The manufacturing industry is changing and favoring small companies and the maker movement; in 2014, more than 350,000 manufacturing concerns consisted of a single owner/employee, a 17 percent boost from a decade ago. Small businesses can and are growing in this sector (and, ironically, can operate in part because of the efficiencies brought about by automation).

Programs that help promote these firms have been seen as pathways to jobs that pay well: New York City has set aside $64 million in its Industrial Developer Fund to make manufacturing centers and floorspace more affordable. And the city’s Tech Talent Pipeline is helping to shape education in the region and create pipelines to funnel talent in regional businesses.

The Equitable Innovation Economies Initiative, a project of the Pratt Center for Community Development, has also promoted efforts in multiple cities to increase the pool of tech talent and incubate a more diverse range of firms, like the Local Initiatives Support Corporation in Indianapolis, which has turned an abandoned industrial district into a new tech corridor.

Experts say say with a period of even more rapid adjustment and shifting employment coming, changes at the federal level that build a more flexible and robust safety net would cushion the coming blows. The U.S. government could put more money toward retraining and educational readjustment programs for workers, including the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program, which was set up to retrain and reskill workers.

No programs exist, and no funding is directly channeled, to those who have been economically displaced due to automation, and our total funding for these efforts lags far behind our peers: The U.S. currently spends about 0.1 percent of its GDP on programs to help workers adjust to workplace shifts; France spends nearly 10 times more (as measured in percent of their GDP).

With economic changes coming more rapidly than ever, improved vocational education and skills training are paramount to creating sustainable development and education. According to Preparing New York for the Next Wave of Automation, a report released by the Center for an Urban Future, with such a wide-range of urban jobs needing to evolve as automation reshapes industries, education needs to be fundamentally reformed. Industry and academia need to team up to create new ways to retrain workers faster, and with the latest technologies and job skills.

One example the new Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) education model—which teaches high school students core subjects and provides an Associate’s degree in an applied science, engineering, or a computer-related field—has been promoted as a way to teach immediately applicable skills early and often. City leaders need to take the initiative to build development programs and educational systems that reflect that new reality.