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These Skills Are Most Likely to Be Automated Out of the Human Workforce

Topics: Career Advice
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The robots are coming for up to 47 percent of U.S. jobs in the next 20 years, according to a 2013 study from Oxford University researchers Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne. Low-paying, low-skilled jobs are most at risk. Unfortunately, these are also the jobs that grew most during the first part of the recovery from the Great Recession.

Over time, this could lead to increased income inequality. Toward the end of President Obama’s last term, the Executive Office of the President released a report on the potential for artificial technology to revolutionize the economy — but leave many workers behind:

One possibility is superstar-biased technological change, where the benefits of technology accrue to an even smaller portion of society than just highly-skilled workers. The winner-take-most nature of information technology markets means that only a few may come to dominate markets. If labor productivity increases do not translate into wage increases, then the large economic gains brought about by AI could accrue to a select few. Instead of broadly shared prosperity for workers and consumers, this might push towards reduced competition and increased wealth inequality.

Which Skills and Jobs Are Most at Risk?

In the appendix of the report, Frey and Osborne rank occupations according to their probability of computerization, from lowest to highest. These were among the highest-risk for automation:

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Data Entry Keyers

Library Technicians

New Accounts Clerks

Photographic Process Workers and Processing Machine Operators

Tax Preparers

Cargo and Freight Agents

Watch Repairers

Insurance Underwriters

Mathematical Technicians

Sewers, Hand

Title Examiners, Abstractors, and Searchers


In short, the authors say that occupations in transportation, logistics, office/administrative support, and the service industry are at high risk. What do these jobs have in common? Most are relatively low-paid, offering median wages of around $12 to $14 per hour, and involve a series of tasks that are easily defined and replicated. In other words, it’s not that these jobs are “easy” — it’s that robots will eventually be able to do them as well as humans.

Frey and Osborne identify three “computerization bottlenecks,” i.e. factors that make a task more difficult for a robot than a person:

  • Perception and Manipulation (e.g. Manual Dexterity)
  • Creative Intelligence
  • Social Intelligence

No industry is safe from the robot incursion, but jobs that rely on manual labor, involve repetitive work, and are relatively low-skilled are probably least secure, while those that depend on emotional labor, creative thinking, or a high level of dexterity are likely safe (at least for now).

“Our findings thus imply that as technology races ahead, low-skill workers will reallocate to tasks that are non-susceptible to computerisation – i.e., tasks requiring creative and social intelligence,” they write. “For workers to win the race, however, they will have to acquire creative and social skills.”

Tell Us What You Think

Are you concerned your skill set might lose value because of automation ? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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