Americans favor assigning to robots jobs that are dangerous and unhealthy for humans rather than those that require human sensibilities (such as caregiving and driving), according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center. Latinos, especially Latino men, are heavily overrepresented in those challenging, and oftentimes repetitive, roles.
The 20 most popular occupations among Latinos in the U.S. virtually all involve hard, manual work and are often dangerous, according to the Brookings Institution fellows Mark Muro and Jacob Whiton, citing jobs in agriculture, roofing, and construction specifically. Construction, for example, had the most fatal work injuries among the Bureau of Labor statistics categories. Latinos make up a whopping 63 percent of drywall installers, a dangerous job because of the harmful irritants in drywall dust, while 30 percent are white and 7 percent are African American, according to Muro and Whiton’s calculations. Latinos are also overrepresented in repetitive work that requires few digital skills—such as that in hospitality—and, according to research by the Mckinsey Global Institute, is most susceptible to automation using currently available technologies.
Automation in the aforementioned sectors has already begun. That’s in part because many of them have lots of job openings (the construction sector, for example, has nearly 200,000 vacancies) that employers could eliminate using robots and other technology, whose efficiency and productivity would also save the companies money in the long-term. Drones, for instance, can take inventory on a site faster than humans can. But the automation of jobs such as drywall installation and roofing is also appealing because the positions are so dangerous: Replacing humans with robots in those jobs could prevent countless injuries and save lives.
All this suggests that the current workforce-automation trend is beneficial not only for the economy, but also for the workers in those jobs—provided that those laborers can develop the new, relatively advanced digital skills required to manage the machines or find other decent-wage jobs. The problem is that few Latinos seem to have these opportunities. According to the Pew report, Latinos are far more likely than whites and blacks to cite automation as the key cause for why their hours or pay have been reduced, or even why they lost a job. While the construction sector has many openings, for example, sometimes those openings are in new areas to which displaced workers can’t travel, as my colleague Alanna Semuels has pointed out in her reporting.
This reality isn’t surprising. In an effort to gauge the impact of automation on different racial groups, the Brookings Institution’s Muro and Whiton assessed the “automation potential”—a measure developed by McKinsey that pertains to how many tasks can be automated using today’s technology—for the 20 occupations in which each racial group is most concentrated. They then compared that to the number of workers in each occupation. Latinos, the researchers found, face the highest automation potential at close to 60 percent, followed by blacks at 50 percent, Asians at almost 40 percent, and whites at roughly 25 percent. Without digital skills, Latinos can be automated out of jobs that extend far beyond the construction and hospitality sectors: According to Brookings, the share of jobs that don’t require workers to have experience beyond basic digital skills—such as knowing how to use Excel and Word—has fallen from 56 to 30 percent between 2002 to 2012.