From Phoenix, A Sneak Peek into the Future of Automation and Jobs

Today, work as we know it is shifting, and rapidly. Automation and artificial intelligence will have a widespread impact on jobs in the years ahead, and especially on low-skilled jobs. In some cases, technology will eliminate jobs. In many more cases, technology will change them—sometimes dramatically.

To better understand the broader impact of technology, New America, a nonpartisan think tank, partnered with our team at Burning Glass Technologies and our analysis of data from Oxford researchers Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne to conduct a first-of-its-kind analysis of the potential of automation to impact jobs in the greater Phoenix region.

Of the thousands of jobs held by Phoenix workers today, which could be performed by existing technology in the next decade? Which occupations and skills are at greatest risk of automation, and who holds those jobs today? To answer these questions, New America combined and analyzed Burning Glass data on the likelihood of a computer being able to do a job using existing technology. Additionally, they analzyed data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics on occupations in Phoenix and nationally.

First, let’s clarify what the “risk of automation” really means. In New America’s analysis, the rankings of automation risk mean it is technically feasible that an occupation could be computerized or automated with state-of-the-art technology available today. To calculate the automation risk, the Oxford researchers evaluated the ability of computers to perform the underlying tasks associated with the given occupation.

  1. “High risk” occupations, such as cashiers, retail salespersons, and accountants, have at least an 85 percent risk of automation.
  2. “Medium risk” occupations, such as personal care aides, cooks, and customer service representatives, have between 50 percent and 85 percent risk of automation.
  3. “Low risk” occupations, such as registered nurses, software developers, and elementary school teachers, have less than a 50 percent risk.

Based on these rankings, let take a closer look at the data.

In the Phoenix metro area, 35% of total jobs (649,040 people) are now employed in occupations that are at high risk of automation. Another 29% (537,110) are at moderate risk of automation. Only a little more than a third (36 percent) are at low risk. Overall, the risk of automation facing workers in the Phoenix region is just slightly above the risk to all workers nationally. Workers in Phoenix and nationally have the same rate of high risk, but Phoenix is one percentage point higher than the United States on medium risk, and one percentage point less in low risk. 

According to the report, workers with less education are more likely to be in jobs that could be automated. As you can see by the below charts, workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher have a majority of jobs with a low risk of automation while workers with a high school degree or less have the majority of jobs at  high risk of automation.

Of the top 10 occupations in Phoenix, six are at high risk of automation. According to the report, this means that nearly 260,000 workers from Phoenix’s top 10 occupations could be displaced due to automation.

Top 10 Occupations in the Phoenix Metro AreaAutomation Risk# EmployedMean Salary
Customer Service RepresentativesMedium Risk69,170$33,590
Retail SalespersonsHigh Risk67,450$25,570
CashiersHigh Risk44,630$21,910
Combined Food Preparation and Serving Workers, Including Fast FoodHigh Risk44,930$20,120
Registered NursesLow Risk37,120$74,930
Waiters and WaitressesHigh Risk36,870$22,420
Office Clerks, GeneralHigh Risk36,220$35,170
Laborers and Freight, Stock, and Material Movers, HandMedium Risk33,840$29,000
General and Operations ManagersLow Risk32,210$103,090
Secretaries and Administrative Assistants, Except Legal, Medical, and ExecutiveHigh Risk29,630$35,910

It’s important to note that the rankings are not a probability that a given job will actually be automated. Because a job or task can technically be done by a computer does not mean that it will. A range of legal, logistical, business, financial, political, and social factors could lower the real rate at which businesses and employers adopt technology and automate functions. Moreover, predictions about technology have a relatively high degree of uncertainty.

Additionally, jobs that have some tasks that can technically be automated will not necessarily be displaced. Instead, the nature of many jobs will change—in some cases, dramatically—but will not be eliminated. (A McKinsey report estimates that just 5% of jobs will be outright eliminated, but that half of job tasks could be automated.) The implication is that workers in at-risk occupations need to continuously upskill to keep pace with the changing requirements of their occupation. Burning Glass research has found low-skill workers have a variety of options to survive automation.

And finally, while technology and automation will displace some jobs and change others, new jobs will also be created and other jobs will expand.

To learn more about these findings, read the full report here.

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