New research suggests automation has had a bigger impact on the U.S. workforce than previously thought, with a series of studies conducted by MIT economics professor Daron Acemoglu and Boston University assistant professor Pascual Restrepo suggesting each new robot introduced to the market replaces approximately 3.3 jobs.

Their work identifies 1987 as the inflection point where jobs lost to automation stopped being replaced by an equal amount of physical jobs.

Within industries adopting automation, Acemoglu and Restrepo found that while 17 per cent of jobs were lost, or displaced, between 1947 and 1987, about 19 per cent of jobs were added to the market, or reinstated.

Between 1987 and 2016, 16 per cent of jobs were displaced, and only 10 per cent of jobs were reinstated.

“A lot of the new job opportunities that technology brought from the 1960s to the 1980s benefitted low-skill workers,” Acemoglu said in a statement.

“But from the 1980s, and especially in the 1990s and 2000s, there’s a double whammy for low-skill workers: They’re hurt by displacement, and the new tasks that are coming, are coming slower and benefitting high-skill workers.”

Their paper, “Unpacking Skill Bias: Automation and New Tasks,” will appear in the May issue of the American Economic Association: Papers and Proceedings

VIDEO: More about the digital skills gap

Sounding the alarm on the digital skills gap

In addition to automation snapping up physical jobs, technological advances are creating a global talent divide that’s more than doubled in the past decade. 

Some employers are taking preventative measures. Last summer, Amazon announced plans to invest US$700 million to retrain 100,000 employees – or a third of its U.S. workforce – in new technologies in a bid to remain competitive.

The initiative — called  Upskilling 2025 — aims to offer employees access to six different programs that focus on a variety of tech skills, like machine learning and software engineering.

April report suggests workers of colour most at-risk

Last month, the National Skills Coalition (NSC) released a report warning that workers of colour are at risk of falling behind.

According to the NSC:

  • Black employees, who make up about 12 per cent of the total U.S. workforce, represent 21 per cent of all workers with limited digital skills.
  •  35 per cent of Latinx workers say they have no digital skills.
  • Asian American and Pacific Islander workers, who represent 5 per cent of the total workforce, make up about 4 per cent of all workers with no digital skills, and 7 per cent with limited skills.
  • Approximately 33 per cent of all immigrant workers have no digital skills and 29 per cent have limited skills.
  • White workers appear to be the least likely to lack digital literacy. This group makes up 67 per cent of the workforce, but only 44 per cent of all employees with no digital skills and 50 per cent of all employees with limited digital skills.

“Data on Native Americans and multi-racial individuals, however, is unavailable due to low sample size,” the NSC says.

Not all ‘doom and gloom’

Even though their studies focused on job displacement due to automation, Acemoglu and Restrepo say technological advances can benefit workers.

In a statement, Acemoglu says the net negative consequences of technology on jobs is not inevitable — and we could find ways to create job-enhancing technologies, rather than job-replacing ones.

“It’s not all doom and gloom,” says Acemoglu. “There is nothing that says technology is all bad for workers. It is the choice we make about the direction to develop technology that is critical.”