The BLS Thinks These Jobs Will Grow a Lot. I Think They’re Wrong.

In a post at The Atlantic, Jordan Weissmann draws a couple interesting graphs using data from the BLS’s recently-released projections of job growth to 2020. Weissmann concentrates on those jobs that require only a high-school diploma or less, and points out the surprising stat that 63% of all US jobs created (12.8 million total) will be in this category. Here are the ones the BLS thinks will grow most, arranged in descending order of volume:

From "The Future of Work for High School Grads," by Jordan Weissmann

My first question when I look at this graph is not ‘what do these jobs pay?’ but instead ‘which of these will be deeply affected by automation and other kinds of technological progress — more deeply than the BLS is currently thinking?’ This of course is an impossible question to answer precisely, but after spending some time looking at the BLS’s projections methodology and its factors affecting occupational utilization, I think it’s likely underestimating the broad impact of technology.

The BLS is certainly not alone in this. As we wrote in Race Against the Machine, the pace and scope of digital progress is so quick it’s catching a lot of us by surprise. I certainly wasn’t expecting self-driving cars and Jeopardy! champion supercomputers any time soon, yet here they are.

We also highlighted how much less labor-intensive sectors like retail have become, so when I see ‘Retail salespersons’ as the job with the greatest projected growth in this category I get skeptical. Same thing with ‘Office clerks,’ ‘Customer service reps.,’ ‘Accounting clerks,’ and ‘Cashiers.’ Thanks to technology, I predict that our economy will need a lot less of each of these per unit of GPD, which implies that GDP is going to need to grow really fast — faster than projected, in all probability — to generate the kinds of jobs growth projected in the chart above.

And if over the next few years we see breakthroughs in robotics similar to the ones we’ve seen in AI and machine learning over the past few years, a lot of the other jobs could grow less than projected above. Are heath care, fast food, janitorial, groundskeeping, and construction robots going to leave the labs and enter the workforce before 2020? Every time I watch another set of robot videos, I get more convinced that they are.

Because a lot of lower-education jobs are physical, they’ve to date been largely isolated from the effects of automation. I think this isolation might well be coming to an end. Do you agree? Leave a comment, please, and let us know.

And if you were wondering what these jobs pay, here’s another graph drawn by Weissmann, with jobs listed in same order as in the graph above:

From "The Future of Work for High School Grads," by Jordan Weissmann

Yuck. Many of these don’t look like very good jobs, do they?