Robots coming for your job? Study says potential is greater in Fresno and the Valley

Amazon unveils its massive Fresno fulfillment center

Amazon officials gave a sneak peek tour of its new 855,000- square-foot innovative, customer fulfillment center, prior to its mid-2018 opening in Fresno. It features conveyor lines and robots that ferry merchandise to workers for processing.
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Amazon officials gave a sneak peek tour of its new 855,000- square-foot innovative, customer fulfillment center, prior to its mid-2018 opening in Fresno. It features conveyor lines and robots that ferry merchandise to workers for processing.

Robots may not be coming for your job – yet.

A new national study, however, suggests that Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley have a greater share of job tasks that could potentially be taken over by automation than much of the rest of California, over the next decade or so.

Among the 100 largest metro areas in the U.S., Fresno ranks 10th for the average percentage of occupational tasks – nearly half – that could be susceptible to automation under current levels of technology, according to the report issued Jan. 24 by the Brookings Institution.

And that share is likely to increase with future advances in technology and artificial intelligence.

And some of the industries that make up major chunks of employment in Fresno – those requiring lesser levels of education and also tend to be lower-paid – are also among those with the greatest share of jobs that could be automated.

Whether that potential is realized, however, depends on a lot of factors, including companies’ willingness to adopt new technology or make the financial investment in the machines and software.

“Technological potential does not necessarily translate into technological reality,” said Robert Maxim, a senior research analyst with Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program and a co-author of the report.

“It’s not always clear what the time frame is going to be. There’s always a delay between the emergence of a technology and adoption.”

In Fresno, agriculture and food-product handling are factors that make the region’s risk level stand out, Maxim said.

“If you look at graders and sorters who handle products after they’re picked, that work stands out as highly automatable,” he said. “As the cost of machinery goes down and the dexterity of new machines improves, the sorters who have been impervious to technology are going to be at greater risk.”

Across all of the California metro areas analyzed by Brookings researchers, the seven with the greatest automation potential are all in the San Joaquin Valley, from Stockton and San Joaquin County in the north to Kings and Tulare counties to the south. Merced County has the greatest potential for automation in the entire state, at 49.7 percent. It’s followed by:

Stanislaus County, 49.6 percent.

Kings County, 48.6 percent.

San Joaquin County, 48.3 percent.

Madera County, 48.3 percent.

Tulare County, 48.3 percent.

Fresno County, 47.8 percent.

Nationwide, the average potential for automation is estimated at about 46 percent of job tasks across all industries. But only about a quarter of jobs nationwide are in industries considered at high risk for automation – sectors in which more than 70 percent of tasks could be automated. That’s about the same percentage of high-risk tasks as in the Fresno region.

Maxim said he believes the Fresno area shares some characteristics with other parts of the country deemed to have greater susceptibility to automation: areas that the Brookings analysts call the U.S. heartland that includes the industrial Midwest, non-coastal regions and the Deep South.

“Automation tends to have greater impacts, or greater potential impact, on smaller towns than in big cities,” he said. “They tend to rely on goods-producing industries that connect through suppy chains to bigger markets and the global market.”

“Larger metro areas have more diverse economies, and more people with bachelor’s degrees,” an education level that appears to distinguish at-risk workers from those who are more insulated from technological effects.

What types of jobs are at risk?

The Brookings researchers determined that generally, when automation replaces labor, machines are suited to take over specific tasks rather than entire jobs. “A job is a collection of tasks,” the report states. “Some of those tasks are best done by humans, others by machines. Even under the most aggressive scenarios of technological advancement, it is unlikely that machines will be able to substitute for all tasks in any one occupation.”

The study suggests that occupations that require lower levels of education from workers are the ones with greater potential for automation.

“Occupations not requiring a bachelor’s degree are a staggering 229 percent more susceptible to automation compared to occupations requiring at least a bachelor’s degree,” the authors wrote. “Just 6 percent of workers with a four-year degree or more are employed in jobs with a high potential for automation.”

The fields cited by the Brookings report for the greatest susceptibility to have tasks automated – accommodation/food services, manufacturing, transportation/warehousing, agriculture, and retail trade – also represent a significant portion of overall employment in the greater Fresno are. Collectively, those four sectors account for more than 150,000 jobs in Fresno County, and almost 320,000 jobs when combined with neighboring Kings, Madera, Merced and Tulare counties.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that workers in any of those industries should panic for their jobs. “Even in high-risk jobs, there are workers who won’t be displaced,” Maxim said. “Those will be more productive, they’ll have more automation to work with, and maybe they will be paid more as a result of automation increases. They will need more skills, and hopefully companies will be their partner in investing in the technology skills that workers will need.”

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Maxim said that for many industries, it’s not a matter of “if,” but “when,” jobs will be affected by technology. “For the most part, the types of changes we are discussing are not going to happen overnight or even within the next five years. We’re generally talking about the course of decades.”

In Fresno and other cities, however, the growing use of technology is already evident in self-service ordering kiosks at fast-food restaurants like McDonalds and self-checkout lanes at stores like Walmart, Target and others.

Those self-service features, as well as online order-and-pay apps for stores and restaurants, are reducing the need for in-person cashiers in those businesses. And in new e-commerce warehouses like the one opened last year in Fresno by Amazon, the workforce of about 1,500 employees are aided in their jobs by an array of technology including conveyor lines and robots that ferry products from storage shelves to workers who sort, pack and ship orders to customers.

Planning for a technology future

The arrival in Fresno of large distribution businesses like Amazon and Ulta Beauty, and the growing use of technology in agriculture, are spurring efforts to establish training programs to prepare workers for jobs that work hand in hand with technology, said Blake Konczal, director of the Fresno Regional Workforce Investment Board.

“Last year, Fresno City College launched its first computer-automated warehouse logistics training program,” Konczal said. “That’s an example of the idea that the only answer to change is to embrace it.” Fresno WIB provided funds for the first group of trainees to go through the program.

Fresno WIB also is providing financial support for the Farm of the Future program at West Hills College in Coalinga. “Most, if not all, of the new high-tech, labor-saving systems that are coming to agriculture are out there and they’re training people for that,” Konczal said. Also receiving Fresno WIB funding are training programs at Fresno State’s Center for Irrigation Technology.

Such training programs and investments will be key to a workforce that is able to transition with the technology rather than be displaced by it, Maxim said.

“Broadly speaking, technology change in jobs has been happening for 30 years of information technology and robotics-based automation that’s affecting human labor,” Maxim said. “AI, or artificial intelligence, is going to put new jobs and occupations at risk.”

Maxim likened the potential to the emergence of ATMs in the banking industry, and fears that the machines would put bank tellers out of work. “What happened is we have more tellers now, but they’re doing higher-skilled work and getting paid more,” he said.

New automation technologies, such as those in place in fulfillment centers, “could create the major displacement that we saw in some factories” from installing robots on manufacturing assembly lines, “but with the right planning, we could see it taking the ATM path where you have better trained, higher-skill workers who transition up the value chain, to higher thinking and higher planning jobs telling the machines what to do.”

Policy planners at city, state and federal levels need to “upscale” the workforce, to train more people with education above a high-school diploma to bachelor’s degrees “and with the digital skills that will be needed as we continue into the 21st century,” Maxim added. “It requires planning, and the time for them to start thinking about it was yesterday.”

Tim Sheehan: 559-441-6319, @TimSheehanNews

Lifelong Valley resident Tim Sheehan has worked in the Valley as a reporter and editor since 1986, and has been at The Fresno Bee since 1998. He is currently The Bee’s data reporter and covers California’s high-speed rail project and other transportation issues. He grew up in Madera, has a journalism degree from Fresno State and a master’s degree in leadership studies from Fresno Pacific University.