Your city could lose one-tenth of its jobs (here are 4 things you can do to prepare)

What would you do if your city lost 10% of its jobs? A new report suggests that could happen in New York City. And here’s the kicker: job losses would likely be worse in your city.

While automation has been taking place for well over a hundred years, it’s gobbling up jobs at a faster rate today. People most at risk for losing their jobs, meanwhile, are those who make the least and are least able to adapt, putting an extra strain on city services.

But there is hope. For one, companies have an unprecedented need for skilled labor — a need that too often goes unfilled. And the report suggests a number of steps cities can take today so they — and their workers — are ready for tomorrow. Scan the suggestions below and steal the ideas that will work for yours. — Kevin Ebi


With U.S. companies struggling to find people to fill six million open jobs, it may seem like an odd time to worry about rising unemployment. But a new report suggests cities need to take action to prepare their citizens for tomorrow’s jobs. Automation is starting to claim jobs that retraining programs were preparing workers for just a few years ago.

The Center for an Urban Future found that as many as 10% of New York City’s jobs could be done by robots or computers. And New York is in better shape than most, since a greater percentage of its job market is made up of higher-skilled or service positions — jobs that have typically been harder to automate.

What’s at risk?
When we think of automation, we tend to think in terms of manual labor, an area where machines have made great strides for centuries. For example, Council Associate Partner Panasonic has developed an autonomous tomato-picking robot. By itself, it can tell which tomatoes are ripe and which need more time on the vine. And it can gently harvest the ripe ones without damaging the fruit.

But as artificial intelligence grows more capable, automation is creeping into the realm of higher-skilled work. Ophthalmic laboratory technicians could be completely replaced by computers, the report finds. The work of lower-level accountings and bookkeeping clerks isn’t far behind. And as autonomous vehicles develop, truck drivers and subway operators could be replaced by machines too.

Even CEOs aren’t 100% safe (although they probably are). The report finds a quarter of what chief executives do could be done by computers.

Why cities should care
Of course, the jobs most ripe for automation are lower- and lower-middle class positions held by people who have a limited set of skills. If cities don’t take action, these people could overwhelm social support services and not have an easy path out.

Making matters worse, some job training programs have been preparing people for jobs that could soon be lost. Nearly half of what web developers do could be automated with the technology we have today, according to the report.

4 steps you can take
First, report authors suggest that governments increase their investments in education and worker training programs, but with a caveat. Instead of locking students and re-trained workers into a particular set of skills, prepare them to adapt.

“As the increasing pace of technological change creates a workplace in constant flux, students should be taught how to keep pace,” the report authors write. “Critical thinking, problem-solving, and adaptability should join reading, writing, math, and science as the core competencies of an education. Career exploration and work-study opportunities for all students will be more important than ever.”

Second, pay attention and respond to the data. There’s no denying that the pace of technological change is becoming faster and faster. As a result, there are people in school today who will be graduating with obsolete skills. Schools and training programs can help minimize that by paying close and constant attention to the needs of businesses and making sure that students take advantage of apprenticeships and internships.

Third, modernize your social safety net. Disruption is the word that best describes today’s job market. Prepare now for what you can do to help those in the contingent job market. As people get bounced from good, long-term jobs, explore what you can do to help them with their social needs as they get ready for their next career.

Fourth, encourage businesses to participate. Companies aren’t just part of the problem here, they’re part of the solution. Whatever your approach, make sure that you treat your businesses as valuable stakeholders. Looking at the job market, it’s not that they don’t need workers; the issue is that they don’t need certain skills. There is a strong demand for labor — just a different kind.