Are robots coming for your job? Maybe

Will a robot take your job? Maybe.

San Antonio is at “high risk” of losing one of every four jobs to automation in the near future, according to a recent report by the Brookings Institution.

While that figure might seem alarming, the Alamo City is “middling, if not relatively unexposed, to major shocks from automation,” said Jacob Whiton, a senior research assistant at the Washington think tank and co-author of the report.

The most vulnerable jobs are the ones in which 70 percent of the tasks could potentially be performed by machines or artificial intelligence. The report’s authors said the rest of the San Antonio area’s jobs — a little more than 75 percent — are at low or medium risk of takeover by robots or AI.

Overall, the San Antonio metro area ranked 41st among the top 100 U.S. metros for average automation potential.

The city’s workforce is less threatened by automation than El Paso, Houston and Dallas, but it’s not as insulated as Austin.

Jobs in food preparation and transportation are some of the most vulnerable, while home health aides and app software developers have more security. Many of the occupations at high risk don’t require bachelor’s degrees — and the San Antonio region lags the national average in attaining undergraduate degrees, Whiton said.

Workers with more post-secondary education are also likely to have an easier time transitioning to a new position.

“That’s going to mean that San Antonio, at least in this particular regard, is going to face some unique challenges,” he said.

Some experts say there’s no reason to panic.

The Alamo City’s manufacturing industry encompasses a lot of specialties, with Toyota’s truck plant, grocer H-E-B and medical-device and aerospace companies, said Ram Ramasamy, a director for the industrial group at Frost & Sullivan, a locally based market research firm. Automation within these and other fields shouldn’t be seen as a menace but as “an augmentation to decision-making for humans,” he said.

People will still be “the ones who run the wheel,” he added. Workers who have spent years learning how a facility operates are invaluable, and companies and organizations should invest in retraining them.

“No matter what your education level is, if you’re working in a factory for more than a decade, you know the ins and outs,” Ramasamy said. “You can’t quantify experience.”

Hollowed out

The Brookings report is part of a ream of recent studies and papers looking at the potential effects of automation on the U.S. workforce.

Machines and artificial intelligence won’t replace everyone. But the effects of automation in the coming years are likely to differ drastically across occupations, geographic areas, ethnic and racial groups, gender, age and education levels, according to the Brookings study.

While “the economy created 54 million net new jobs” between 1980 and 2016, “the first era of digital automation was one of traumatic change in the labor market for many,” the authors wrote. It was “defined especially by the ‘hollowing out’ of the labor-market middle, with employment and wage gains coming only at the high and low ends of the skill distribution.”

In the years ahead, people in lower-wage jobs are at greater risk of replacement.

“Workers without any college or post-secondary education are going to have a much more difficult time, insofar as the jobs they’re in now have elevated automated potential,” Whiton said. “Men, younger workers, Hispanic and African American workers are more likely to experience job disruption.”

Texas falls in the “middle of the pack,” ranking 25th among the 50 states for average automation potential.

Roughly a quarter of jobs in the Lone Star State — and nationwide — are deemed to be at high risk. Some of Texas’ major industries, such as manufacturing, energy and agriculture, are more exposed to automation. The Houston metro area, for example, ranks 31st among the top 100 metros.

The state is also home to a number of fast-growing metropolitan areas that are seeing an uptick in the kinds of high-skill, complex and creative jobs that are harder to robotize, Whiton said.

Automation, of course, is nothing new, said Thomas Tunstall, senior research director at the Institute for Economic Development at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Agriculture and manufacturing have already seen waves of mechanization that increase productivity and efficiency while making “a lot of manual labor unnecessary” and shrinking the rural workforce.

“It’s only logical that we would expect to see the service sector become increasingly automated (next),” Tunstall said.

In their report, the Brookings authors recommend governments and businesses invest in retraining employees, increase opportunities for education and training, and support workers who lose their jobs. Policymakers and educators need to look at how technology is changing, what skills will be needed in the coming years and the social safety nets for displaced workers, Tunstall said.

“The nature of work is changing,” he said. “We need to try to make sure public policy keeps up.”

The easiest-to-automate jobs generally involve repetitive, monotonous tasks. Robots are better suited to these duties because humans are “not built for that kind of repeatability” and robots are “too dumb to get bored,” said Erik Nieves, CEO of San Antonio-based Plus One Robotics.

People are wired for tasks that involve cognition, perception, dexterity and decision-making. Companies should move workers to positions that capitalize on those advantages, such as training them to program, maintain and manage a fleet of robots, Nieves said.

Inside Toyota’s plant on the South Side, which produces Tacoma and Tundra pickups, a giant robot nicknamed Godzilla lifts heavy truck parts from one level of the facility to another. It’s that kind of repetitive job, which would be difficult and dangerous for a human to attempt, that the automaker wants machines to handle.

But more complicated duties such as installing air bags and seats in a vehicle are handled better by people. The robots and other automated features at the plant are intended to supplement humans’ work, Toyota spokeswoman Melissa Sparks said.

Automation technology has created a new type of job — Toyota and other manufacturers need people who can program, maintain and fix robots, Sparks said. That demand resulted in TX FAME, a partnership between Alamo Colleges, Bexar County Economic Community Development and local companies, including Toyota, Toyotetsu Texas, Caterpillar Inc., CPS Energy, H-E-B and Joyson Safety Systems.

Participants take college classes while working for a local company in preparation for jobs as advanced-manufacturing technicians. Other programs, such as Alamo Academies, aim to introduced young people to careers in fields such as advanced manufacturing.

“Building a truck every 60 seconds — we can’t do that without people,” Sparks said.

madison.iszler@express-news.net

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