The Influencer Series

When robots take California jobs, what happens next?

Technology and Hiring at Amazon

A look inside the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Patterson, Calif. The company shows off the latest robotic technology and discusses hiring for the upcoming holiday season.
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A look inside the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Patterson, Calif. The company shows off the latest robotic technology and discusses hiring for the upcoming holiday season.

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The California Influencers Series

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Dan Schnur, a veteran analyst and longtime participant in California politics, is director of the California Influencers series for The Sacramento Bee and McClatchy.

There are no buggy whip factories in California. They don’t sell 8-track tapes at the mall. The last wall-mounted telephones will soon be in a museum.

Technology has always been a driving force of economic and social change, but those advances are often accompanied by severe disruption in the job market.

Even while California enjoys record-low levels of unemployment, readers responding to our California Influencer series express concerns for the future of the state’s changing economy.

But while most of the Influencers, a group of the state’s most respected experts in public policy, politics and government, acknowledged that jobs will be lost to automation, they are confident about California’s ability to successfully adapt to a technology-based economy.

“…One of the biggest economic challenges we face involves the jobs that are lost through advances in technology. (But) California is positioned to step up to this challenge and make it a friend, not a foe,” said former U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, who emphasized opportunities in clean energy, water, and infrastructure. “…(W)ith our network of universities and high-tech centers we should be the ones creating the new technologies…”

“There is nothing new about new technology increasing labor productivity and the economy requiring fewer workers for the same output,” said Dorothy Rothrock, President of the California Manufacturers & Technology Association. “Education and workforce development curriculums need to be modernized to teach the skills that will keep workers fully employed.”

Angie Wei, chief of staff for the California Labor Federation, can envision a day when farm workers use new tools to test for food safety "while machines do the backbreaking work of picking our food." Health care workers, she said, could use technology to lift patients "while they get trained to become health providers."

“We need to harness tech to make work easier for workers, use it to create good jobs," Wei said. "To do so, workers must have a voice in re-imagining work. she said. (We must) use tech to create good jobs, not eliminate them.”

California’s higher education leaders were optimistic about the state’s ability to meet that challenge.

“Every time we undergo a major shift in technology new jobs that haven’t yet been imagined are created,” said University of California President Janet Napolitano. “We need to educate the next generation with an eye towards this unpredictable future and retrain older workers for new types of work.”

“We know that Californians with a college degree are better equipped to handle the global shifts in technology, automation and other factors making some industries and jobs obsolete,” added California State University Chancellor Tim White.

“Education and reskilling are to key to preparing our workforce for the disruptions that automation and (artificial intelligence) are having on the economy,” said California Community College Chancellor Eloy Oakley. “Supporting adult learners and the labor organizations that represent them is vital to our economic future.”

Former California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron George also stressed the importance of higher education, but cautioned that a singular focus on job-related skills would not be sufficient.

“… California students must be given the type of education that will enable them to secure employment…” George said. “But this must not be done at the expense of providing them with a basic background in the liberal arts and sciences, and in their rights and responsibilities as Californians.”

Several Influencers recommended more immediate action, both to protect vulnerable workers and to ease the transition.

Bonnie Castillo, Executive Director of the California Nurses Association, called for worker protections such as single-payer health care, a shorter work week, and supported Sen. Bernie Sanders’ federal job guarantee legislation.

Former Congressman Tom Campbell suggested private sector incentives, arguing that the tax deduction for training workers be doubled, “essentially investing in the exact retraining for which there are jobs.”

Jonathan Keller, President and CEO of the California Family Foundation, offered a reminder of the importance of other types of learning.

“STEM education and computer training are valuable. But so is vocational training. Students should be given the opportunity to study both high tech as well as voc-tech,” Keller said. “…For years, we’ve told Californians about the value of working with their minds. We need to remind them there is no shame in working with their hands.”

Kim Belshé, executive director of First Five LA, emphasized that such preparation must begin much earlier.

“A stable, prosperous future depends on our investments in our kids’ well-being today, Belshé said. “(I)nvesting in children delivers a phenomenal return through strong outcomes in education, health, social behaviors, and workforce readiness for the high-paying jobs of tomorrow.

“High earners are not simply born; in California, we build our economic strength through our kids and we launch them to succeed in school and life.”

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