Business

Robots Vs. Immigrants Vs. Americans: Who Gets The Jobs?

Photo of Neil Munro
Neil Munro
White House Correspondent

Even the optimists are pessimistic about the growing impact of robotics on millions of blue-collar Americans, according to a new report by the Pew Research Center.

And that’s even before President Barack Obama potentially starts handing out work permits this month to several million illegal immigrants who will compete against Americans for the remaining unskilled jobs that robots won’t be doing in a decade or two.

“We probably will continue to see deskilling and reduced wages in many areas due to these technologies,” said one of the optimists in a new Pew report, Brian Butler, a professor at the University of Maryland.

It is “far too soon to tell” if the technological advances will cause “older industries to shed millions of workers,” said another Pew optimist, Bob Ubell, vice dean for online learning at New York University.

Other so-called optimists in the Pew study said new technology will create lots of jobs — but only for people who can learn high-tech skills, not for blue-collar people who can’t do more than low-skilled jobs.

“Some classes of jobs will be handed over to the ‘immigrants’ of [artificial intelligence] and Robotics, but more will have been generated in creative and curating activities,” said J.P. Rangaswami, chief scientist for Salesforce.com, another optimist, according to Pew.

None of Pew’s experts said that least-skilled slice of Americans — the high-school C-students and dropouts, the people who work in meat-packing plants and in trucks, in checkout lines, crop fields, in food preparation and in landscaping — and maybe their children, will be ready for higher-IQ, higher-skill tasks.

“Robotic advances and AI will inevitably eliminate the need for many jobs. However, it will also create new jobs … jobs that involve designing, manufacturing, maintenance and repair,” said Luis Hestres, a doctoral candidate and graduate research assistant at American University’s School of Communication.

“Robots will replace service and manufacturing jobs, but will open up more possibilities in tech and development,” said Joe Kochan, chief operating officer for U.S. Ignite.

The Pew report admitted the nation’s education system isn’t up to the task of upgrading blue-collar manual workers — and their children — into white-collar knowledge workers. ”Our educational system is not adequately preparing us for work of the future, and our political and economic institutions are poorly equipped to handle these hard choices,” the report concluded.

Pew did not address the possibility that a growing share of the nation’s citizens simply won’t be able to learn the skills needed to compete with the robot “immigrants.”

Moreover, even well-educated white-collar professionals and their children won’t be safe from the robots’ advance, Pew said.

The sons and daughters of journalists and academics, of congressional staffers and lawyers, social activists and bankers — are going to be hit hard, Pew predicted. “Impacts from automation have thus far impacted mostly blue-collar employment; the coming wave of innovation threatens to upend white-collar work as well,” said the report.

The rise of robots is happening as lobbyists and politicians try to raise the inflow of foreign workers who are already competing with Americans for the shrinking share of unskilled good jobs.

That’s very different from Japan, where the public has declined to promote social diversity, and is instead developing robots to supply the labor needed by Japan’s aging society.

In contrast, current American immigration policy provides green cards to roughly one million mostly-unskilled adults and children each year. Democrats and a coalition of business and labor interests want to double that inflow, and bring in plenty of extra graduate workers too.

The Senate’s June 2013 immigration bill, for example, offered a path to legalization to at least 12 million illegal immigrants, and accelerated the award of green cards to millions of other immigrants’ foreign siblings, cousins and parents, regardless of their skills or educational accomplishments.

Overall, the Senate’s bill would have joined with existing law to provide green cards to roughly 30 million people over the next decade — very few of whom would be selected for their SAT scores or their ability to write software — plus an unknown quantity of foreign professionals.