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

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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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, 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.

The country has already begun the experiment. The feds OK’d the arrival of 10 million guest workers and 13.4 million immigrants between 2000 and 2013. The inflow has not boosted wages or increased employment among native-born Americans .

Four million Americans turn 18 each year, so the current inflow of guest workers and immigrants boosts the new labor supply by roughly 25 percent.

The number of native-born, working-age Americans who have fallen out of the labor market has risen by almost nine million since 2007 and by almost 15 million since 2000, according to a new report by the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that favors reduced immigration. That number can mostly be attributed to the 2008 recession. By late 2012, roughly 50 million native-born working-age Americans weren’t working, up from roughly 36 million in 2000, according to the March report.

The wealth gap has also grown sharply, especially in California.

Lopsided opposition from the public has prevented GOP leaders from approving the immigration-boosting bill.

“We need to regulate immigration. … One has to be careful about how much you increase the U.S. labor supply through immigration,” said Ron Hira, an expert on robots and immigration at Howard University.

“The fundamental problem of our nation for the last 15 years, is the lack of demand for U.S. labor, and no-one has an explanation,” he said, adding that the the nation is short roughly 20 million jobs.

Robots probably won’t destroy jobs, but they’re a growing part of a complex economic system that doesn’t reward companies for creating jobs or training workers, Hira told The Daily Caller. Good policy can help companies create jobs — and immigration should be managed so that it doesn’t overwhelm the job market, he said.

President Obama, however, is planning to bypass Congress and the public by signing executive orders on immigration, which could provide work permits to several million illegal immigrants already in the country.

He’s already allowed 120,000 Central American migrants to cross the border and file lawsuits for residency.

Three of those Central American immigrants were described in a recent Associated Press report, after they were handed over to their unemployed Honduran mother in Miami, Fla., by a U.S. border agencies.

The mother, Zelaya, “lives here illegally. She spent the last decade working in restaurants and, more recently, busing tables at an airport hotel,” said the article. “Without their mother, the children [in Honduras] struggled … [12-year-old] Nicole says she got as far as the second grade. [16-year-old] Anita, who never made it past fifth, was hired out by a cousin to wash clothes because the money.”

The third immigrant is the three-year-old child of 16-year-old Anita.

Pew’s forecast looks toward 2025, but for the moment, businesses can profitably create low-wage jobs for low-skill workers, including the beneficiaries of Obama’s executive orders. They can hire workers for as little as $7.25 a hour because taxpayers subsidize their companies’ payrolls with a series of welfare programs, such as the earned income tax credit, food stamps and housing vouchers.

But soon enough, robots will be so cheap that businesses will have much less use for government-subsidized low-skill workers, or for the millions of new immigrants they’re now demanding.

They’ll have the option of just renting more robots — to assemble widgets on production lines, to milk cows in farms, pick fruit in fields, sell or assemble hamburgers — without the need to juggle workers’ schedules, to pay for health care, settle workplace arguments, pay for vacation time or worry about injuries on the job.

That pending collision of high immigration and cheap robots could leave the country with an even larger population of idle low-skill workers once robots can do the work at a cost below the minimum wage.

Several experts in the Pew report highlighted the interplay of immigration and robots.

“Work-related immigration from South to North will decrease if robots will do the work of immigrant workers,” said Sakari Taipale, a Finnish technologies researcher.

“From self-driving taxis to garbage collectors to autonomous service systems, machines will start to exist in our social space the way that low-paid (often immigrant) human workers do now: visible but ignorable,” said Jamais Cascio, a writer and futurist.

Some of Pew’s optimists are simply optimistic about jobs because they think the job-sucking robots won’t arrive until after 2025.

“The technology needed to create serious disruption in employment will take more time. … Self-driving cars will take a great deal more time than small innovations such as we see now,” said Stephan Adelson, president of a technology consulting company.

“By 2025, society will not allow free roving self-driving vehicles [because public opposition to] job loss will be one of the major contributing factors to the slow adoption,” William Schrader, the co-founder and CEO of PSINet Inc.

Others optimists are optimistic because they have faith that something good will happen, even if they can’t describe what it will be.

Robotics “will displace many jobs but the rate of job creation will outpace this,” said Brad Templeton, a leader with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Singularity University, “Why is uncertain — it always has, in spite of regular predictions to the contrary.”

“Automation has never led to fewer jobs in the economy in the past and never will in the future, for the simple reason that automation lowers prices, which increases demand for goods and services, which in turn creates jobs,” said Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

But robots aren’t merely automating more muscle power, as machines have done since the Industrial Revolution. These robots are doing something unprecedented — they’re automating human skills, voices, eyes, fingers and brainpower.

The optimists’ hopes may not be reliable enough for some Americans, but at least they’re more upbeat than Pew’s plethora of pessimistic prognosticators.

“Anything and everything that can be automated to replace humans will be done. You can bet on it!” said Larry Gell, founder and director of the International Agency for Economic Development.

Low-skill jobs in retail, parking and call centers “will go and won’t come back,” said John Wilbanks, a senior executive at Sage Networks.

“Networked, automated, artificial intelligence applications and robotic devices will have displaced more jobs than they have created by 2025 … for both white and blue-collar jobs,” said Dave Kissoondoyal, CEO for KMP Global Ltd.

“We’re going to have to come to grips with a long-term unemployment process,” said Karl Fogel, a partner with Open Tech Strategies, “and the fact that — strictly from an economic point of view, not a moral point of view — there are more and more surplus humans.”

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