December 15, 2017 at 5:00 am ET
Shortly after Donald Trump was elected president, he toured a Carrier factory in Indianapolis, touting that he persuaded the company to remain open and not outsource more than 1,100 jobs to Mexico.
About six months later, this deal fell apart, with Carrier choosing to use the $16 million it promised to invest in the facility after Trump’s visit in job automation — not human capital. Indeed, there is widespread agreement among labor economists that the United States will lose a substantial number of jobs to automation over the coming years and decades. PricewaterhouseCoopers estimated earlier this year that 38 percent of U.S. jobs would be lost to robots by 2030. McKinsey projected that available technology could perform 45 percent of the activities people are currently paid to do.
The rise of artificial intelligence and robotics will, on one hand, bring with it a number of benefits. Many people look forward to napping in their cars while Siri (or her successor) navigates them through gridlock. People who perform dangerous or backbreaking labor are generally happy when their jobs get easier and safer with the help of machines – and rightly so. But for those of us who believe that work is fundamental to people’s sense of dignity and self-worth, and possibly to a functioning democracy, the replacement of humans with machines could come at a high cost. How will people earn a living? What will give us purpose? How can everyone have a meaningful voice in a society where economic value is created by a fraction of the population?
Enter climate change.
It may sound like a non sequitur in the context of a discussion about jobs, but the fact is that increasing economic and social costs of extreme weather create an imperative to mitigate the impacts of hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, fire and other disasters. Some of the most effective adaptation methods are surprisingly labor-intensive — they include activities such as small-scale property upgrades, the creation of “green” infrastructure like oyster beds and rain gardens, and better forest management. What’s more, the nature of these activities makes them likely to remain labor-intensive even as bots replace more lineworkers, tellers, cashiers and drivers.
The economic toll of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria has reached tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars — not to mention the toll on people’s lives and livelihoods. The wildfires in northern California in October are estimated to have caused another 65 billion dollars in losses. Earlier this summer, the journal Science published a study estimating that climate change would cost 1-2 percent of gross domestic product in states like Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina by 2100. A lot of money can be saved by investing in disaster prevention and mitigation. And that is where a large number of people can also be gainfully employed. It may be uneconomical to use human labor to stock warehouse shelves, but it makes economic sense to hire people to make us more resilient.
A small but growing number of companies and organizations are doing just that. Blue Forest Conservation employs people to remove brush and shrubs and thin trees in California forests in order to restore them to a healthier and less fire-prone state. This work is labor-intensive but could avoid tens of millions of dollars in costs related to fire and drought — not to mention prevent the loss of lives, homes and livelihoods. The Nature Conservancy has successfully created jobs in Virginia and along coasts around the country by restoring and protecting coral and oyster reefs and other coastal ecosystems that improve water quality and blunt the effect of storm surges. My company, MyStrongHome, fortifies houses to better withstand hurricanes by installing new storm-proof roofs, financing the work with the resulting insurance discounts so that homeowners aren’t on the hook for the upgrades. On average, each house we retrofit requires more than 150 hours of construction labor.
These mitigation-focused enterprises certainly depend on technology to operate more efficiently – but they all have a labor-intensive component at their core. What’s more, these jobs are unlikely to be replaced by automation any time soon and certainly cannot be outsourced to China. If the government wants to invest in job creation, supporting resilience infrastructure – through a variety of tools such as tax incentives, enabling regulation and innovative finance mechanisms like pay for success — may actually go further than trying to battle the inevitable trend toward automation and outsourcing.
It might be that two of our biggest challenges in 2017 — natural disasters and the future of jobs in America — are more closely related than people realize. A new cohort of leaders is building the case that solutions to one problem can be harnessed to address the other. We need to think outside of the warehouse, or the app, to identify innovative and impactful models that will employ and make us resilient in the 21st century.
Margot Brandenburg is co-founder of MyStrongHome and co-author of the book “The Power of Impact Investing.”
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