Automation of the labor force was feared for a long time.

Hunter Wrigley, a second-year student in Southern Maine Community College’s Precision Machining and Manufacturing Lab, prepares a machine to engrave keychains with the use of a robot arm, right and above. Although the overnight replacement of workers by robots has not come to pass, major social and economic questions about the management of an increasingly automated labor market remain.  Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

In 2017, a website sprung up to answer a question long on the minds of many: Will robots take my job? The creators based it on Bureau of Labor Statistics data and a 2013 research paper from Oxford University about “the susceptibility of jobs to computerization.” Things have moved quickly since; even the term “computerization” now sounds desperately out of date.

If you plug “journalist” into the site’s search bar, for example, the site reveals an “automation risk score” of 9 percent. Nurse practitioner gets the same score (we’d argue this flatters the journalist). Accountant clocks in at 50 percent. 

As language has changed, so have attitudes; automation is no longer seen as the hulking grim reaper it once was. 

Look no further than the fourth and second-last installment of our labor market reporting project, “Not Working,” which highlights the mostly uncontested benefits of automation in many settings around Maine. 

Improved efficiency and safety in physically taxing or hazardous jobs (those in the “dirty, dull, dangerous and difficult” category) is good for both employer and employee. Automation gives businesses more data and makes them more nimble to the vagaries of contemporary supply and demand. Nowhere is this more evident than in the manufacturing sector, which has been steadily automating for years and even so – like almost every other sector right now – is struggling to fill openings. Automation has distinct benefits at this moment, too. 


Although the immediate fears have been assuaged by upsides and the overnight replacement of workers by robots has not come to pass, major social and economic questions about the management of an increasingly automated labor market remain. 

Some of it will come down to “future-proofing” our workforce, evolving in a manner that takes care to protect job availability and security. For Maine, that means coming up with a long-term strategy that sharpens the focus on the kind of education, training and retraining required for work that would score low on the “automation risk” search engine – a lot of which most of us aren’t all that familiar with yet. Anticipating rapidly changing needs will require unprecedented collaboration with employers.

Some of it might also be focused on restitution: Andrew Yang, presidential candidate-turned-aspiring disruptor of traditional politics, once proposed a payment of a $1,000 “freedom dividend” to every American every month to ward off any chill that artificial intelligence brings to the U.S. economy. Even those previously opposed to the concept of universal basic income might be brought around to the idea that such a payment could be funded by taxing automation-generated profits, that it could be a prudent and fair response to a radical transformation.

There’s also an ever-expanding role for unions, which have been confronting and bargaining on technological changes to how work is carried out for decades. Well-paying or union jobs should be available to any displaced workers.

The AFL-CIO is in favor of a policy of full employment through government employment programs similar to the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s (as well as more unions in general). “The public, the government, invests tons of money into research and development,” Andy O’Brien, communications director for Maine AFL-CIO, said Sunday, “so it’s not far-fetched to say that we should have some say in how that technology is implemented, since we paid for it.”

It’s not far-fetched at all. Any suggestion that we have no dramatic change to creatively prepare for – or that the preparation shouldn’t have started in earnest already – is.

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