The county has been feeling the creeping wave of automation for a long time. Grocery store scanners, telemarketing scams, TurboTax, drones and self-driving cars—the future is finally here.
And while much of the Automation Wave appears innocuous, it has been a destructive tsunami for mournful, lost-glory manufacturing states like Michigan and Ohio. Between 1990 and 2007, every robot per thousand workers cost six workers their jobs and slashed wages nearly a whole percent.
Oregon has felt automation too, but our stubborn spirit often chooses odd and unpredictable changes to resist—we still pay someone to pump our own gas, for God’s sake. But when automation-armed corporate goliaths notice our state is a sleeper tax haven, they will invade, and future generations of Oregonians need to be prepared to protect themselves and their families. Many industries as we know them today will be radically transformed: Transportation, which makes up nearly 20% of the Oregon workforce when combined with trade and utilities, will soon be driverless despite the strangled cries of the emaciated unions; restaurants and fast food joints, which together employ over 144,000 people, will be buzzing with touchscreen kiosks instead of cashiers and order-takers; construction sites, which have had rocky ups and downs since the Great Recession, will be the stomping grounds of tireless diggers, cranes, and jackhammers juiced on robot intelligence.
I’m especially cautious also of the misguided antipathy toward free trade that burns in both the Bernie and Trump wings of their respective parties. NAFTA wasn’t the leviathan job-swallowing sucking sound Ross Perot predicted in 1992—it was automation that stole most of them away under a cloak of intoxicating 90’s futurism that blinded everyone to its dangers. That same cloak is still concealing the size of the automation juggernaut: By some estimates, almost half of total employment in the United States is in the “high risk category” of jobs we can expect to lose to automation over the next couple decades.
This whole introduction sounds pretty luddite, but despite the devastating economic and lifestyle changes automation will bring, I’m a big supporter. However, that’s only if we can educate and train our future workers for the jobs of the future.
So, with last weekend’s March for Science putting technology back in the spotlight, I thought it would be a good idea to investigate the jobs considered the most “robot-proof” in Oregon. To conduct this investigation, I’m using the McKinsey Global Institute’s recent analysis of more than 800 occupations and their changing relationships to automation, and I’m using projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to see where the fastest growing jobs in Oregon are, and where dead-ends might lie.
Despite the trumpeted arrival of MOOCs and online learning, Khan Academy isn’t going to be replacing your second-grade teacher or professor anytime soon. Across all levels from elementary school to college instructors, both automatability assessments and employment projections are promising for educators.
That said, educators shouldn’t fear integrating technology into their classrooms. Kids need to understand how technology works and its creative potential, other than using it to whine on Twitter at 3:00 a.m. about deep, unresolved personal problems. Automation might be on the table during hiring discussions when the PERS disaster reaches critical mass because the Oregon Supreme Court won’t allow the passage of substantive bipartisan legislation to fix the issue. If that happens, robot teachers should not (and, according to the BLS projections, likely won’t) be the first choice. Just look at Florida, which requires students to pass an online course to finish high school. It’s already had to drop in multiple “oops, sorry” caveat amendments since that rule was imposed less than two years ago.
One of the encouraging aspects of automation is it will force the integration of gender-insular industries like teaching and nursing, as well as male-dominated industries like computer science and engineering, which allows companies to focus on finding the best match when hiring. Healthcare is almost universally praised as the next big yuge jobs engine of the near future. There’s going to be a lot of old people to care for, and as a friend in nursing once told me, the “future of nursing is STEM,” in addition to massive demand for nurses that can speak Russian, Vietnamese, or Spanish.
- Sales Representatives
I hesitated to put this one on here, but the data seem to fit. The theory goes that people still don’t like buying things from robots. They like talking to a person face-to-face, and will always take a warm human body over an automated voice message labyrinth. It’s the strategy behind companies like Gravity Payments, predicting that there’s a profit to be made on the backlash annoying sales automation usually creates. I understand the logic and evidence behind it, but I also see Amazon reaching corporate godhood, and its sales platform couldn’t be more impersonal, robot-like, and efficient. That will be especially apparent once Amazon is able to fly your packages to your door with a drone. I think it’s more likely human sales representatives will perform more of a business-to-business role.
- Operations Managers
My supervisor at work is an operations manager, and he is the arachnid master of the company’s operational web. He knows the fine details of every sector of the company, from data processing to accounting to business negotiation, and he feels all the tiny trembles on every web-strand with terrifying accuracy. These are the people who are going to be around forever, even if automation should eventually become universal to all industries. You always need at least one person behind the mainframe (or designing, programming, and building one—see next), no matter what you learned from the Terminator movies.
- Engineers, (6) Architects, (7) Maintenance and Repair Workers, and (8) Pretty Much Anything with Computers
Design, a proud champion of the flowery, flaccid humanities every STEM major bashed in college when one of us had the audacity to complain about our workloads, will always be creative enough to make it a permanently human occupation. Oregon has always been a hub of innovation and creativity, so any job based around design will have a long lifespan here. This will be especially true if Oregon takes hold of the potential silicon opportunities to become a global leader in alternative energy. That’s the scenario that involves all the roles mentioned above: architects designing solar paneled homes, computer-minded folks and engineers building the solar panels, and maintenance and repair workers doing the essential upkeep. That’s the kind of economic prosperity we should be looking forward to instead of rehashing the glory days.
We need more good teachers, med school is still worth it, emotional intelligence is undervalued, creative pursuits can be practical, learn how to use a fucking computer.
# # #
 Yes, my three years in Washington converted me to our neighbor state’s (and the rest of the country’s, except New Jersey) self-pumping ways.
 Surprise—Oregon has the lowest effective business tax rate in the entire country (technically, we’re tied with Connecticut).
 Easier said than done, obviously. The Industrial Revolution swept people into cities to find work, and eventually people gained the necessary skills for good jobs. But cities are so crammed and expensive these days, they aren’t exactly the shining lands of opportunity they used to be. More on this problem in a future article.
 And about time, too. Scientists have the absolute worst PR problem of any potentially powerful special interest group in the United States. People working in sophisticated science roles make up a block of society that is predominately rich, white, male, and highly educated. What other special interest groups which fit that description are losing as hard as science is? I’m just as frustrated as anyone about the state of science funding, the lack of technology adoption in our classrooms, and the disappointing dearth of women and minorities in science roles, but come on, scientists (real scientists—sorry, Bill Nye) need to step it up.
 Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.
 Assuming a timeline where Oregon invests enough in alternative energy, my hometown of Hillsboro could and probably would become a global leader in green technology. With SolarWorld growing jobs every year, soon Intel won’t be the only superpower on the block.
 By the way, “essential upkeep” is a job that deserves serious attention. While working with a solar panel installation startup in Seattle, I learned solar panels cost roughly $30,000 to install, and the person who does it makes $30 an hour, which is more than twice what the Oregon minimum wage will be in 2020.