Disappearing jobs

Donnie Charleston with the Institute for Emerging Issues, addresses Buncombe County leaders at the March HUB meeting.

By Vicki HyattA projected 39 percent of the jobs in Buncombe County could disappear because of the technological revolution, ranking it as the fourth highest in the state on a “future work disruption index.”

A projected 39 percent of the jobs in Buncombe County could disappear because of the technological revolution, ranking it as the fourth highest in the state on a “future work disruption index.”

The index was developed by the Institute for Emerging Issues, a public policy organization focused on enhancing North Carolina’s long-term prosperity.

Automation primarily threatens jobs in the areas of food preparation/serving and sales, though areas such as transportation, clerical and finance trades are hard hit, too.

Donnie Charleston, the economy policy manager, spoke at the March HUB meeting where he told Buncombe leaders that nearly 96,000 jobs in their county could be lost in the new automation age within a generation.

“This is not just blue-collar jobs we’re talking about,” Charleston said. “It affects white-collar jobs, too. Telemarketers are at the top of the list, and so are tech workers and word processors. Quickbooks has already changed the accounting world.”

A recent analysis by Mike Walden at North Carolina State University showed that jobs in 39 major employment categories in the state are at least 70 percent likely to be eliminated within one generation as a result of automation.

The technological advances that will disrupt jobs aren’t futuristic developments, but ones already in use, Charleston stressed. For instance, self-driving cars are already on the road, and combined with drone delivery capability, have huge implications for workers in the transportation business where 50,000 drivers in North Carolina are projected to be lost. Uber has already placed a mass order for self-driving cars, Charleston added.

Self-checkout kiosks are in place in many retail locations already. While the number of employees to kiosks is 4 to 1 in the U.S., Australia has 19 kiosks for every retail employee, he said. Statewide, an estimated 139,000 retail sales positions are at risk for extinction, and of those, 5,100 are in Buncombe County.

In restaurants, the advance of self-order kiosks have the ability to replace the need for front-of-the-house wait staff and in fast-food restaurants, the use of robots can diminish the number of employees needed for food preparation.

More than 280,000 jobs for fast food workers are projected to be lost statewide, with 4,470 of those projected in Buncombe. Overall, 14,730 jobs are projected to be lost in Buncombe within the food and beverage industry.

Other fields susceptible to technology advances range from accountants to bank tellers to bookkeepers to clerical workers to cashiers.

On average, NC counties face the potential loss of more than 25 percent of their current jobs and nearly 20 percent of current wages as a result of automation and related technologies, according to the IEI report.

“Our traditional economy is disappearing,” Charleston said. “The western region of North Carolina will be hit the hardest.”

Other key factors in the transition are North Carolina’s aging population and moving to a state where groups considered minorities will become the new majority, he said.

What next?

The center’s disruption index does not account for the new jobs that will undoubtedly be created in the new economy, but the fear is that the number of jobs will be fewer. Even scarier is that futurists have no idea what those jobs will be, so they aren’t certain how to prepare workers for them.

Experts are more comfortable predicting the type of skills that will be needed in the new economy, however.

A workforce that is more creative and has the ability to quickly adapt to change will be key. Those with the ability to solve problems and have computer programming skills are predicted to have a bright future in the new economy.

The new skills mean that current education models will need to change, the group agreed.

“Other countries are changing their education because they were not teaching creativity,” said Mary Grant, chancellor at UNC-Asheville. “Most of the economic disruption will be in the low-wage jobs, and if the traditional routes to self-sufficiency are eliminated, where do those people go?”

“Part of the problem right now,” said Kit Cramer, president and CEO of Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, “is that we don’t care for children at the very youngest age when they are developing brain paths.”

One thing is for certain, Charleston said. The old economic development model of setting sights on a single manufacturing entity that will produce 300-plus jobs is a dying reality.

“It will be more likely to find 30 companies that will create 10 jobs each,” Charleston said, stressing the need to cultivate a small-business-driven economy.

While it is technologically possible for the predicted changes to happen, the reality is some areas will embrace the changes more quickly than others, noted Mack Pearsall, the founding philanthropist behind Asheville’s Collider.

“There’s a strong likelihood it will happen, so it behooves every county to be prepared,” he said, advising that leaders grow a hedge against automation.

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