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From cashiers to factory workers, computers and software are taking jobs that are the backbone of the middle class

Jan. 27, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

Meter readers for the utility companies. Factory workers. Office workers of all kinds. Cashiers. And so many more.

All are jobs that have seen declines in numbers in recent years, and not from the slowed economy alone. They're being replaced by computers and automation -- and many are jobs that have been the backbone of the middle class throughout the world.

After a detailed analysis, The Associated Press found that almost all the jobs disappearing are in industries that pay middle-class wages, ranging from $38,000 to $68,000.

In the Great Recession, 3.76 million, or 50 percent, of the 7.48 million U.S. jobs lost were in midwage industries, according to Moody's Analytics. But only 2 percent of the 3.52 million jobs gained the 42 months since the recession ended have been midpay. Nearly 70 percent are in low-pay industries, 29 percent in industries that pay well.

Middle wage jobs are being replaced in many cases by machines and software that can do the same work better and cheaper.

"The jobs that are going away aren't coming back," said Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at the Center for Digital Business at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-author of "Race Against the Machine." "I have never seen a period where computers demonstrated as many skills and abilities as they have over the past seven years."

According to the AP, the global economy is being reshaped by machines that generate and analyze vast amounts of data; by devices such as smartphones and tablet computers that let people work just about anywhere, even when they're on the move; by smarter, nimbler robots; and by services that let businesses rent computing power when they need it, instead of installing expensive equipment and hiring IT staffs to run it. Whole employment categories, from secretaries to travel agents, are starting to disappear.

"There's no sector of the economy that's going to get a pass," said Martin Ford, who runs a software company and wrote "The Lights in the Tunnel," a book predicting widespread job losses. "It's everywhere."

The situation is apparent in West Virginia as well.

"Almost all manufacturers in West Virginia have employed the combination of capital and technology to make their operations more efficient," said Steve Roberts, president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce. "On the one hand, that's probably cost some people to lose jobs. On the other, it's saved existing jobs, so it's a double-edged sword. ... The whole question is where are we going to go to make up those jobs."

According to a report from the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy, West Virginia's biggest loss in jobs since the recession started five years ago were in a couple different sectors. Manufacturing lost 10,600 jobs between 2007 and 2012, and the sector of "trade, transportation and utilities," lost 12,000 jobs in that time. Many other industries have been hit as well, on a smaller scale.

Helping the state recover jobs has been the health care industry, the brightest spot right now on West Virginia's economic map.

The "education and health services sector" added 12,300 jobs, a reflection of the growing size of the health care industry both in West Virginia's and the national economy.

"We've seen a switch away from manufacturing and industrial sector jobs to service and health care jobs," said policy analyst Sean O'Leary, author of the center's report. "It's been month after month of manufacturing job losses. Very rarely have we seen any jobs added in manufacturing. ... Health care is really the big driving force and is becoming a bigger part of the economy across the country."

While the coal mining industry has slowed for a number of reasons, such as low natural gas prices and stricter federal regulations, there was a December bump in jobs because it's "taking more coal miners to mine the same amount of coal," O'Leary said. "It's getting tougher to get the coal. They're getting to that nitty-gritty, hard to reach coal."

When it comes down to it, West Virginia needs to reshape itself in many ways, said Roberts of the West Virginia Chamber.

"I actually think the situation might be more pronounced in West Virginia and here's why: Many of our middle income jobs traditionally in West Virginia have been on the production side of economy -- mining, manufacturing or construction. We have the lowest level of manufacturing jobs in West Virginia since we started counting. We lost 5,000 mining jobs in West Virginia last year, which approaches 20 percent of the mining jobs we have in West Virginia.

Over a long period, the number of service sector jobs has grown, he said, many of those are lower-wage, part-time retail jobs, with little or now benefits.

"Those are not the kind of middle income jobs that we'd like to be developing or that families need to have a good standard of living," Roberts said. "We've given a great deal of thought about this at the West Virginia Chamber. We'd like West Virginia to reshape itself to attract production and encourage manufacturing, but we also need to add financial services."

Research arms of universities also are key in spawning high-tech, high-end jobs, he said.

"We also believe West Virginia is a very good place for large companies to locate back office operations," Robert said. "I'm talking about high-tech companies and others. We have an available workforce and relatively short commutes to work and low costs in everything from electricity to real estate. We could be attractive to back office operations for insurance companies and financial services. Those are the kinds of things we could be doing to supplement the loss of production jobs and those would help to shore up the middle wage jobs that I'm very worried about."

In the meantime, there are problems that must be addressed in the state as it moves forward. Not enough potential employees can pass both a basic math, reading and comprehension test as well as a drug test, Roberts said.

"I met with a number of employers today who said, 'We have to eliminate half of our potential employees because they can't pass basic skills tests or they can't pass a drug test,'" Roberts said. "I talked to one of the largest manufacturing employers in the state today who had a major layoff and has recalled every laid off employee and is very hopeful about the future, but not confident about the ability to bring into their workforce people who can pass basic skill tests and in combination with that drug test."

Drug abuse "is a very big issue," for West Virginia businesses, he said.

"It's something we really have to be talking about," Roberts said. "We get opposition from some of the labor unions on that subject and yet, without trying to point fingers, we simply have an epidemic of drug abuse, and it keeps people out of the work force because they can't pass a drug test. It's very sad."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.