Automation, historically speaking, has been the processes or procedures performed, in businesses like manufacturing, without aid from people. Automation or automatic control is the use of various control systems for operating equipment such as machinery, processes in factories, boilers, and heat treating ovens, switching on telephone networks, steering and stabilization of ships, aircraft and other applications and vehicles with minimal or reduced human intervention (Rifkin 66). As I have learned through my research, automation has impacted the business environment as early as Eli Whitney and the Cotton Gin. Concerns over automation and joblessness during the 1950s and early 1960s were strong enough that in 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson empaneled a Blue-Ribbon National Commission on Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress to confront the productivity problem of that period”specifically, the problem that productivity was rising so fast it might outstrip demand for labor (Autor 3). It is believed that one day there will be fewer jobs for humans because of automation. President Johnsonr’s commission took the reality of technological disruption as severe enough that it recommended, as one newspaper (The Herald-Post 1966) reported, a guaranteed minimum income for each family and two years of free education in either community or vocational colleges (3). Automation brings an understandable level of anxiety to the workers possibly displaced and to policymakers trying to lead the nation while maintaining a healthy and robust economy. In this paper, I seek to understand and explain why African-Americans should be concerned with the possibilities of technological unemployment due to automation.
Automation is used today in several fields including manufacturing, home, and office. Some major companies in production, like Toyota, use automation to build vehicles. In the home Alphabet, the parent company of Google produces a home thermostat called Nest that allows homeowners to automate their heating and cooling needs. Lastly, Avaya Communications produces network communication systems for the office. All of these companies have experienced increases in productivity as a result of automation.
According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS), in 2016 African-Americans made up 12.3 percent or 19.6 million of the 159.2 total workforces (Rolen). African-Americans hold many different positions in our economy but an overrepresentation of employees in the public sector, federal, state, and local governments. According to the BLS, African-Americans comprise 20 percent of the workforce in the public sector and 7.1 percent of transportation and warehousing, and utilities (Rolen). Because of African-American over-representation in these industries, it is clear there is potential for African-Americans to be greatly impacted by automation in the public sector and the transportation industry. Trucking jobs have been an opportunity for black, Hispanic, and Native American workers, who have faced serious, race-based barriers to entry in other blue collar jobs and are now overrepresented in the industry (Marshall).
Take the transportation industry, for example, Tesla Motor is set to begin production on an electric Semi capable of driving 500 miles on a charge while hauling 80,000 pounds of freight (Marshall). Additionally, the Semi truck is expected to be semi-autonomous, capable of driving itself on highways. When a fully automated semi-truck is thoroughly dispersed into the market, all driving industries could lose up to 300,000 jobs a year (Marshall). In addition to the trucking industry, Frey and Osborne (2013) found that 47% of jobs in the US and 57% of jobs on average in the OECD countries are at risk of automation.
Even education, one of the most labor-intensive sectors, will most likely be significantly impacted by improved user interfaces and algorithms building upon big data. The recent growth in MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) has begun to generate large datasets detailing how students interact on forums, their diligence in completing assignments and viewing lectures, and their ultimate grades (Simonite, 2013; Breslow, et al., 2013).
To my knowledge, I could find no study that quantified the effects of what recent technological progress is likely to mean for the future of employment of African-Americans. I conclude we all should be concerned about the impact of automation on labor. Technologies that are disruptive to their markets are guaranteed to cause some anxiety as we can predict more clearly which industries will be impacted but cannot predict those industries automation may create.
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