Saturday, September 21, 2013 —
The unemployment in North Carolina and the U.S. is still too high. We can’t seem to eliminate it. Different people have different explanations why it continues, so let me throw out a reason that is not frequently discussed — technology. Our changing technology is eliminating the need for many of the mid-level jobs.
I’m not being a pessimist. I am trying to understand what we need to do to have a more productive future. Let’s go back more than 100 years and look at a change since then. According to government data from 1900, 41 percent of Americans were working on farms producing our food and fiber. Now it is less than 2 percent. Are the 39 percent who are no longer working on farms unemployed? No. The people who would have been farming have learned other skills and are working producing other products and services. As a result most of us are living better and consuming more products and services than our ancestors could have imagined. The improved technology has resulted in higher incomes for all of us even if our occupations changed.
So what does this have to do with unemployment now? I will argue that our technological revolution is eliminating jobs that won’t be replaced. An example is the announcement within the last month by Bank of America that they will be closing some drive-through lanes at their banks. Because of the increased use of the internet by bank consumers, there is less need for bank tellers, so some of these good jobs will disappear throughout the banking industry.
Within the last week I have read in a poultry industry publication the prediction that within 10 years poultry will be cut up and packaged by robots instead of the hundreds of people who work in a poultry processing plant. It hasn’t happened yet, but programmers are working on it.
Anyone who has been using air travel knows that the need for local travel agents to arrange their travel has been transferred to the internet where it is almost impossible to talk with a person. There is no one to talk with because everything is being done by computer. Those travel agent jobs are gone.
All of these jobs have required some special training and have resulted in middle class incomes. Unfortunately for many people, the jobs which have disappeared won’t be back. A lot of people with middle income jobs will have to adjust their skills to fit other jobs. For the population as a whole, this is good. It was good when millions were no longer needed on farms because they could then start producing other products and services we wanted and needed. However, the adjustments result in more unemployment than would be if the technology was not changing.
We need to continue to ask ourselves, our schools and our governments what can be done to ease the transition to new skills. We will continue to see the hollowing out of middle class jobs in our economy.
Many low skilled and the highly skilled jobs will continue but don’t look for a return of lost jobs requiring mid-level skills. Those jobs may be gone forever.
Eugene Pickler is an economics professor at Pfeiffer University. He writes a regular column for The SNAP.