Pandemic push toward automation means ‘too few low-wage jobs’

BROCKTON, Mass. — Michael Gaynor can’t get anyone to return his calls.

The 38-year-old Lakeville native said he spent the last 12 years working in warehouses, loading and unloading trucks. He’s now having a hard time finding anyone to hire him.

“I’ve been putting applications in pretty much everywhere,” Gaynor said. “Right now, I’m just not getting any calls back.”

More than 10 million Americans are still out of work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the blue-collar workforce has taken a big hit during the pandemic as more companies move towards automation.

The job market can be so challenging, some are thinking about changing careers entirely.

Pew Research recently surveyed more than 10,000 unemployed workers. Two-thirds of the respondents said they “seriously considered changing their occupation or field of work.”

“I’m pretty much open to anything. I’ve put a couple [calls into the] labors union, roofers union,” Gaynor said. “[It feels] kind of hopeless after a little while.”

According to the Hamilton Project, an economic research group at MIT, COVID-19 has drastically accelerated the shift to automation.

“The crisis has simply brought the possibility of an increasingly automation-intensive future closer to the present,” wrote David Autor and Elisabeth Reynolds, members of the MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future.

Autor and Reynold’s report “The Nature of Work after the COVID Crisis: Too Few Low-Wage Jobs” also indicated companies are learning to get by with fewer workers.

“We can expect leaner staffing in retail stores, restaurants, auto dealerships, and meat-packing facilities, among many other places,” the report said.

“Right now, there’s absolutely a mandate to automate. It’s no longer an option. It’s a mandate,” Locus Robotics CEO Rick Faulk said.

Faulk said the explosion of online shopping has put his Wilmington-based company in high demand.

“The reality is it does take fewer workers to do the function that we do,” Faulk said. “We’ve only scratched the surface. There are about a hundred thousand buildings right now around the globe that are totally unautomated. So everyone has got to automated to solve this problem.”

Robots are becoming more common, too. An article by Harvard University Professor of Economics and Demography David Bloom said the number of industrial robots tripled in the last decade, rising from one million in 2010 to more than 3 million in 2020.

“While automation is likely to foster overall economic prosperity, it comes at the price of increasing inequality,” Bloom wrote.

“The main challenge here is to ensure that as many as possible will benefit from the positive economic and social effects of automation to prevent a situation in which a substantial part of society is disconnected from the gains brought by technological progress,” Bloom said.

It’s not just industrial jobs being threatened by automation. Babson College Associate Professor Josh Stillwagon said jobs in foodservice, hospitality and entertainment are also in trouble.

“For automation, in particular, you’ve seen more movements to online ordering, for example, online check-ins with the hotels, it’s going to replace some jobs,” Stillwagon said.

Meanwhile, Gaynor said he’ll keep making calls and searching online for job postings.

“I’m willing to work. I’m capable of working and just--it’s overwhelming more than anything,” Gaynor said. “You’ve got bills to pay, you’re worried about just making ends meet and right now I’m not even doing that.”

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