Every time you check yourself out at a grocery store, even if you find it terribly convenient, there’s probably a little voice inside you that thinks, “Uh-oh.” As in, “Uh-oh, there’s a machine doing the job a person used to do.” Well, here’s the bad news.
There’s plenty more where that came from.
U.S. politicians spent the past year arguing about trade deals and walls, but you heard almost nothing about robots and artificial intelligence. Many American workers will soon have a lot more to fear from machines than immigrants.
In fact, plenty of workers who probably don’t think they are vulnerable to computer code may very well find themselves digitally outsourced this decade. While it’s obvious that simple manual labor, like fast-food employment, will be among the first to face automation elimination, plenty of white-collar workers are at risk, too. Basically, any job where task follow relatively predicable patterns (i.e., anyone who complains they are bored) can be automated. That ropes in even high-paying, formerly stable occupations like law. Get a drink or two in a lawyer, and she or he will admit to all the cutting and pasting that goes on in many common legal briefs. Lawyers who don’t fear robots aren’t paying attention. One glance at Joshua Browder’s ragingly successful DoNotPay parking ticket-fighting bot should cure them of that.
So, how worried should you be? Fortunately, researchers at Oxford recently ran the numbers on 700-plus professions to find out exactly how vulnerable many jobs are to automation. Every thinking person of working age should be familiar with this list, so that’s why you really need to keep reading. In a moment, I’m going to walk you through the bottom of the list, and explain the kinds of jobs that are at most risk. But first, let’s talk about the clever folks who at least will be able to find a role in the new world order when our artificial intelligence overlords are in charge.
In a phrase, these are people who solve “engineering bottlenecks.”
Machines are great at rote tasks. They are terrible at “soft” skills, like sensing emotions. For quite a while, machines will be bad at sales. For example: It’s easy for a machine to ring up your purchases and take your money. It’s much harder to sense from your facial expression that you haven’t found something you want, and help you find it in the store.
In technical terms, sensing emotion is an engineering bottleneck, according to the Oxford report. So, if you want a future, get good at things machines are bad at, and you have half a chance.
I’ll help you with that now. The list of jobs that are least likely to be automated are heavy on work that requires empathy: Recreational therapists, audiologists, social workers, dieticians, sales engineers, special Ed teachers, makeup artists, athletic trainers and coaches. Even folks like music directors, and interior designers do pretty well on this scale.
Now, onto the bad news.
If you browse through the Oxford list of the 50 most machine-replaceable jobs, many occupations listed there will probably provoke in you some feelings of schadenfreude. At the very bottom of the list is telemarketers. So maybe this robot invasion isn’t so bad after all. There’s also a bunch of other jobs you’d fully expect, like hand sewers and data entry “keyers” and bank tellers and of course, cashiers.
But there’s a whole bunch of other well-heeled jobs in finance that rank below even cashiers — loan officers, tax preparers, credit analysts, legal secretaries, and real estate brokers. Even taxi drivers rank higher than that group.
Let your eyes drift a bit higher up the list, and include the 20% of occupations at the highest risk, and you’ll see accountants and auditors right next to truck drivers. Budget analysts are next to cement masons. Insurance sales agents are sandwiched between cabinetmakers and dredge operators (some justice there?). And to show you I’m not letting my bias through, technical writers are next to bus drivers.
The point is clear: Don’t be so glib about that fast checkout next time you breeze through a drugstore to grab some Advil. You could easily end up being replaced by self-checkout. Better start getting empathetic, fast.
Here’s a countdown of the most automate-able occupations in the Oxford study.
50. Grinding and Polishing Workers, Hand
49. Pesticide Handlers, Sprayers, and Applicators, Vegetation
48. Log Graders and Scalers
47. Ophthalmic Laboratory Technicians
45. Camera and Photographic Equipment Repairers
44. Motion Picture Projectionists
43. Prepress Technicians and Workers
42. Counter and Rental Clerks
41. File Clerks
40. Real Estate Brokers
39. Telephone Operators
38. Agricultural and Food Science Technicians
37. Payroll and Timekeeping Clerks
36. Credit Authorizers, Checkers, and Clerks
35. Hosts and Hostesses, Restaurant, Lounge, and Coffee Shop
33. Inspectors, Testers, Sorters, Samplers, and Weighers
32. Bookkeeping, Accounting, and Auditing Clerks
31. Legal Secretaries
30. Radio Operators
29. Driver/Sales Workers
28. Claims Adjusters, Examiners, and Investigators
27. Parts Salespersons
26. Credit Analysts
25. Milling and Planing Machine Setters, Operators, and Tenders, Metal
24. Shipping, Receiving, and Traffic Clerks
23. Procurement Clerks
22. Packaging and Filling Machine Operators and Tenders
21. Etchers and Engravers
19. Umpires, Referees, and Other Sports Officials
18. Insurance Appraisers, Auto Damage
17. Loan Officers
16. Order Clerks
15. Brokerage Clerks
14. Insurance Claims and Policy Processing Clerks
13. Timing Device Assemblers and Adjusters
12. Data Entry Keyers
11. Library Technicians
10. New Accounts Clerks
9. Photographic Process Workers and Processing Machine Operators
8. Tax Preparers
7. Cargo and Freight Agents
6. Watch Repairers
5. Insurance Underwriters
4. Mathematical Technicians
3. Sewers, Hand
2. Title Examiners, Abstractors, and Searchers
SOURCE: THE FUTURE OF EMPLOYMENT: HOW SUSCEPTIBLE ARE JOBS TO COMPUTERISATION? ∗ Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne
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