This press release is a summary of the Future of Work Report released by WorkForce Central. If you’d like to read the original report in its entirety, please use the button below. If you’d like more information about this topic, you can join us at the Future of Work forum on September 26, 2019.

Why is WorkForce Central studying the potential impacts of artificial intelligence and automation?

In workforce development, it’s one of those topics that keeps us up at night. Futurists and authors like Martin Ford have warned us for years about the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the “threat of a jobless future” — that by 2030, 400 million workers worldwide could be displaced by automation. We know certain occupations will be (and have already been) made obsolete by machines, artificial intelligence and the internet.

But we also know there may be opportunities for workers to move to higher-paying jobs and away from low-wage, low-skill jobs in this new era if we work with our partners in K-12, post-secondary education, economic development and industry to start talking about and planning for the future.

What’s the upshot of this report?

What we found is somewhat concerning — in Pierce County, we have work to do to prepare our economy and workforce for the future. Based on our current distribution of jobs, we’re at risk of losing a huge chunk of work to automation and computerization. That’s because we have a disproportionate share of retail sales, hospitality and food service jobs and not as many coveted computer, tech, and white collar jobs as our neighbors to the north and south (King and Thurston counties, respectively).

As the report notes, “The distribution (in Pierce County) is very much in line with observations of the hollowing out of middle risk and middle-income jobs. In Pierce County we see that 47 percent of occupations are estimated to be at a high risk of automation (141,682 occupations over 75 percent).”

Part of our problem: We know that computer occupations are among the most insulated from the threat of automation, because those workers will be writing the code and programming the machines, so to speak. And we’re churning out a growing number of post-secondary awards in computer-related programs in Pierce County, earned by people who want to work those jobs.

So the challenge confronting our region is not necessarily the lack of talent for the types of jobs associated with automation and computerization, nor do we have any apparent dearth of pipelines to these careers, nor do we lack models of education or employer partnerships: Our barrier is a lack of demand for these jobs regionally.

Scroll through the data visualizations below to see what jobs are most susceptible to automation and how many of those jobs exist in Pierce County. You can also see the distribution of occupations by risk of automation broken down by educational attainment as well as race, ethnicity and gender.

What does this mean for me?

Part of that depends on what you do for a living and how old you are. We know there are changes coming to the nature of work that we can’t fully predict because the technology that will change them hasn’t been adopted or saturated yet. At a very high level, it’s unknowable: We don’t know what we don’t know.

Getting a four-year degree is no guarantee that you’ll land a job that can’t be done by a machine. While it appears that generally, people with bachelor’s degrees are more insulated from the risk of automation, those jobs aren’t totally safe. More surprising is the lack of security seen among residents with a high school diploma or even some college. Combined, just 27 percent are at low risk of automation.

Those without high school diplomas are most at risk — over half of the occupations held by residents without a high school diploma are at high risk (13,076 occupations in the 75 to 99 percent range).

What can we do?

We laid out several recommendations in the report, but the first and most urgent is that our county would seriously benefit from a Future of Work task force to help guide workforce and economic development in response to shifts from automation, monitor and explore the topic, and work with partners to make collective and serious recommendations that lead to action and measurable change.

Among other things we’d love to see implemented:

  • Improved use of the existing labor force: 31 percent of Pierce County residents with a bachelor’s degree are underemployed, and tens of thousands are commuting to King County for work each day. Employers and economic development partners should prioritize efforts that utilize these labor pools to meet emerging skill gaps.
  • Increased focus on emerging and high-demand occupations: Prioritize career pipelines and retraining/upskilling efforts to high-demand occupations with minimal automation risk. Regularly re-evaluate existing pipelines and workforce development efforts to ensure that resources are aligned with projected labor needs. Support a talent development pipeline and lifelong learning structure, from K-12 through retirement, for all workers and industries. Train incumbent workers (reskilling existing labor is cheaper than hiring skill replacements).
  • Employer-directed training: Increased employer engagement and participation in workforce training. Skill gaps are often the single greatest challenge for employers in Pierce County. Employers would benefit directly from taking a more active role in workforce education and training priorities, helping ensure that resources are directed where needed, with learning opportunities that better address the needs of the workforce.
  • Ensuring demographic representation in all educational and pipeline programs: Full demographic representation within pathways to emerging occupations is critical to ensure that economic disruptions don’t further disparately impact historically under-represented populations.
  • Encourage employers to invest in worker training and education

Where can I find out more?

First, make sure you read WorkForce Central’s full Future of Work report below! You can download a PDF or read the interactive digital version.

Want to continue the discussion? WorkForce Central is hosting an evening forum on automation and artificial intelligence on Sept. 26 at 4:30 p.m. at the University Y Student Center. You can get your tickets here.

Join us as author and futurist Martin Ford talks about the threat workers face as jobs and tasks are increasingly automated. Then, listen to a panel of some of the brightest minds in Pierce County talk about what we need to do to prepare for what’s to come so our workers are ready for the new economy, instead of at risk of being displaced by it.

Questions? Reach out to Candice Ruud: cruud@workforce-central.org.

Read the Full Report

Click one of the buttons below to read the full Future of Work report in print or digital form.