Automation is almost a dirty word these days. It wiped out manufacturing jobs — robots replaced auto workers, computer code pushed aside machinists. Now, the silent reaper is coming for more, the argument goes.
Breathless, for sure. Still, we dismiss the trend at our peril.
Florida was lucky in a way. The state never relied as heavily on manufacturing as parts of Pennsylvania and Ohio. We got stung. They got floored, at least for a while.
Florida has also enjoyed the economic boost that comes from a reliable stream of new residents. That advantage is expected to last for at least a couple more decades. But the state is loaded with jobs vulnerable to automation and its cousin artificial intelligence.
Many forecasters point to tourism and hospitality, which employ 1.25 million Floridians, about 14 percent of the state's total workforce. Robots and other forms of automation can perform many of those industries' routine tasks. They can prepare and serve food. They can also wash dishes, which jeopardizes the states remaining 40,000 dish washing jobs.
As long as customers don't miss the human touch, computers and software can make travel plans and even act as tour guides. Hotel desk clerks beware: Devices similar to ATMs are already spitting out room keys at select locations around the country.
No wonder a recent MagnifyMoney report said Florida was the state most likely to lose a high percentage of jobs to automation. Lakeland, Daytona Beach, Fort Myers, Sarasota and Orlando placed in the report's top 12 most vulnerable metro areas, far more than any other state. Miami ranked 18th out of 100. The Tampa Bay area came in 35th. (Las Vegas was No. 1.)
Our problems don't end there. Florida boasts specialized manufacturing jobs in industries such as defense and aerospace that robots are less likely to take over. But it also has a disproportionate number of low-paid manufacturing jobs that require little skill. Many of those jobs have already evaporated, but some smaller manufacturers haven't automated because the technologies cost too much. With prices falling, don't expect many of those lesser skilled jobs to remain a decade from now.
You can see the move toward automation at some new or recently renovated McDonald's restaurants. Customers order and pay for Big Macs and hot fudge sundaes at touch-screen kiosks without uttering a word to an employee. Same goes for checking in for a flight at the airport or getting your taxes prepared. Those all used to require human interactions. Now software can do the work.
Over the next decade, automation is expected to dramatically cut the number of jobs that require spending the majority of time on routine tasks. Think telemarketers, tellers, bookkeepers, janitors, cashiers, insurance underwriters, ushers and the more rote parts of the legal profession.
At the safer end of the spectrum are jobs that require human interaction, critical thinking, creativity and empathy, particularly ones that take place in unpredictable environments. It's unlikely that robots will replace mental health social workers or homicide detectives anytime soon. Trauma surgeons, dentists, nurses, elementary school teachers and emergency management directors also make the safer-than-most list.
Many of the likely-to-be automated jobs don't pay very well. They are often performed by workers with less education and fewer skills, who aren't as well equipped to make the jump to high-skilled jobs. They will struggle to find work without a sustained commitment to retraining. That makes it particularly important that Florida's leaders understand what's coming.
That said, automation is hardly a bogeyman. It has made life easier and workplaces safer. Machines can do the heavy lifting and other dangerous tasks. Automation also helps free workers from routine parts of their job, so they can focus on more important tasks. Instead of filling out endless paperwork, a mortgage broker can spend the extra time getting to know her clients. A detective can get DNA results faster. Automation will also create jobs that don't exist today.
For hundreds of years, new technologies have come along that have put people out of work. But the human race is very good at finding new and better things to do. We have created jobs that are more fulfilling and contribute more to the overall economy.
We can do it again, as long as we don't get stuck with our heads in the sand.
Contact Graham Brink at email@example.com. Follow @GrahamBrink.