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Print exclusive: Computers and software taking middle class jobs

Jan. 27, 2013 @ 09:00 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.”

Learn more about trends in West Virginia jobs by reading Sunday's print edition of The Herald-Dispatch.

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