ARIZONA DAILY SUN

Automation, innovation driving new economy

2013-01-28T00:00:00Z Automation, innovation driving new economy Arizona Daily Star
January 28, 2013 12:00 am

The following editorial appeared Thursday in the Arizona Daily Sun in Flagstaff.

On paper, the Great Recession has been over for several years.

But to many workers displaced by the economy's sudden contraction in late 2008 and 2009, it still feels like an uphill battle.

Jobs in construction have yet to rebound. Many government agencies and schools still employ far fewer than they did four years ago. And many jobs in middle management are being added back on a contract or part-time basis.

The numbers are startling. According to The Associated Press, half of the 7.5 million jobs lost during the Great Recession were in industries that pay middle-class wages, ranging from $38,000 to $68,000. But only 2 percent of the 3.5 million jobs gained since the recession ended in June 2009 are in midpay industries. Nearly 70 percent are in low-pay industries, 29 percent in industries that pay well.

The result is what economists call the "hollowing out" of the middle-class workforce, and it is far from over. They predict the loss of millions more jobs as technology becomes even more sophisticated and reaches deeper into our lives.

Here in Flagstaff, laid-off workers can get assistance with applying for jobless benefits, shaping up their résumés and receiving retraining and education for a different line of work.

The last option may be particularly appropriate. According to Labor Department statistics compiled by The Associated Press, in the U.S. more than 1.1 million secretaries vanished from the job market between 2000 and 2010, telephone operators plunged by 64 percent, word processors and typists by 63 percent, travel agents by 46 percent and bookkeepers by 26 percent.

The reasons have mainly to do with automation and new information technology that lets managers field calls themselves and arrange their own meetings and trips.

But the same dynamic is in play in many other fields, from robots on the factory floor to automated cars that can drive themselves.

Although government-backed job retraining might help with basic skills like navigating the latest computer software, we're more comfortable with private employers identifying the jobs they need to fill and the skills needed to do them.

Locally, when Flagstaff Medical Center foresaw a nursing shortage as health insurance coverage for the poor expanded in Arizona, it partnered with Coconino Community College and NAU to ramp up nursing courses and training.

But in general, the growth in jobs will focus on new technologies that drive efficiencies and productivity. The Wall Street Journal lists biotechnology, cloud computing, artificial intelligence, robotics and nanotechnology as among the main growth sectors.

How do these trends relate to Flagstaff? As it turns out, our Mountain Town, with its state university, major medical center and deep base of scientific talent, seems as prepared as any small city in the Mountain West to respond to rapid changes in the workplace and workforce as the economy rebounds. We'd urge local economic development leaders to take a hard look at which jobs are coming - and which aren't coming back - then help local businesses big and small to prepare for the sea change.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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