Tag Archives: jobs

They took our jobs… but we’re okay with it? AI-related job growth linked to improved social welfare

It’s always a bit bittersweet when we talk about AI: on one hand, the promise of automating various processes and producing more value is always exciting, but on the other hand, there’s always the fear of job replacement.

With the constant erosion of the middle class, increased income inequality, and now, a global pandemic to put the world economy on hold, the idea of having AI coming for our jobs can be nothing short of terrifying. But according to a new study, it may not be all that bad. The study found that AI-related job growth correlates with economic growth and improved social welfare.

According to a CNBC/SurveyMonkey Workplace Happiness survey from October last year, 37% of workers between the ages of 18 and 24 are worried about AI eliminating their jobs. Across all demographics, 10% of people are afraid of AI taking their jobs, even though experts say it won’t happen anytime soon. Even so, demand for AI-related jobs has been steadily growing constantly in recent years, and to many people in the workforce, it remains a thorny issue.

Two researchers affiliated with the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence (HAI) wanted to assess just how thorny this issue is. Christos Makridis and Saurabh Mishra analyzed the number of AI-related job listings in the United States between 2014 and 2018, using Stanford HAI’s AI Index, an open-source project that tracks and visualizes data on AI. The first thing they found was that cities with more AI-related job postings exhibit greater economic growth.

This relationship was not clear and linear, and the causality is also murky. Cities that were able to leverage their industrial and educational capabilities were more successful in creating AI jobs. In other words, only cities with advanced infrastructure, educated workers, and high-tech services produced numerous AI jobs — and these were also the cities that experienced the most accelerated economic growth. Presumably, it’s not the AI jobs that cause economic growth or vice versa, it’s the underlying conditions that cause both.

But another correlation was even more interesting. When they compared the results with the Gallup U.S. Daily Poll (which measures five components of individual wellbeing: physical, social, career, community, and financial), they found that places with more AI jobs also report more well-being.

“The fact that we found this robust, positive association, even after we control for things like education, age, and other measures of industrial composition, I think is all very positive,” Makridis says.

The study can’t determine if there is any causality involved, but even so, the researchers say city leaders should take note and support smarter industrial policies, focusing on scientific and technological innovation. These policies (along with those that promote higher education) can not only encourage economic development, but also promote positive, transformational shifts among urban residents.

“Given that [cities] have an educated population set, a good internet connection, and residents with programming skills, they can drive economic growth,” Mishra concludes.

Japan unveils stimulus package for businesses hit by the coronavirus epidemic

With the economy taking a long pause amid the coronavirus outbreak, medium and small-sized businesses are among the most affected, not being able to open their stores and having difficulties in paying wages.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

In Japan, the government has decided to step up and help businesses with a subsidy so they can pay their employees in full – as part of the largest stimulus package ever given by the country, totaling $990 billion.

Small and medium-sized companies suffering from sharp sales declines will be fully exempted from paying taxes such as consumption and property taxes. At the same time, they will have access to loans without interest or collateral and subsidies if their revenue drops significatively.

The Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare also plans to use an existing employment adjustment subsidy, which helps enterprises forced to temporarily lay off workers continue to pay them.

Before the pandemic, laid-off workers at companies that have halted operations are entitled to at least 60% of their regular pay. But now the government increased this to 90% to keep them from being dismissed, with the company chipping in the other 10%.

“A significant impact on economic activities is inevitable,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a press conference, calling the current situation “the biggest crisis” of the postwar era. “I’m resolved to overcome this crisis, together with Japanese citizens, by mobilizing all possible policy means,” Abe said.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government and other localities across Japan have asked restaurants and other businesses to close or shorten hours during the health crisis. The central government’s financial support measures aim to maintain the income levels of workers in these industries.

The subsidy program’s parameters will cover 3 million companies and about 10 million employees. But the employment adjustment subsidy has not proved popular so far, partly owing to its complicated paperwork and the roughly one-month wait for processing applications.

Anxiety in the US economy

With US President Donald Trump eager to restart the economy as soon as possible, there is widespread anxiety among American workers that will eventually have to get back to work, a recent survey showed.

Over 80% of US workers said they would not feel safe going back to work if their state were to reopen now, according to a survey by Fishbowl, a popular workplace app. In New York, the epicenter of the pandemic, only 14% said they would feel safe to back to the office.

Just behind New York were the District of Columbia at 14.65%, Maryland at 15.28%, Washington at 15.57%, and California at 16.05%. The survey included employees at companies such as EY, Deloitte, Accenture, Amazon, Edelman, Nike, Google, KPMG, and many others.

Previous Fishbowl surveys have revealed that 54% of workers fear layoffs at their companies as a deep recession grips the country. Nationwide, at least 26 million people have lost their jobs in the U.S. over the last month, with low-wage workers among the most affected.

Climate change is destroying jobs in New England’s fisheries

New research at the University of Delaware (UD) reports that climate fluctuations are impacting the fishing industry in New England — and costing people their jobs.

Overexploitation of marine resources has, traditionally, been the plague of the fishing industry. But this is not the only threat it’s facing today. Researchers at the UD report that changing climate patterns are impacting Atlantic fish populations, which in turn affects jobs in the New England fishing industry.

Image credits Arek Socha.

“As we see more warm winters off the New England coast, historic fisheries decline and fewer fishermen stay in business,” says Kimberly Oremus, assistant professor of marine policy. “This has important implications for fisheries management in New England, which employs 20% of U.S. commercial harvesters.”

The team correlated the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), one of the most important climate fluctuations in the North Atlantic, with labor numbers in New England. They found that climate fluctuations have caused a 16% drop in fishing sector jobs in the area from 1996 to 2017. There are around 34,000 commercial marine fishermen in New England, the paper notes.

Previous research has used temperature projections as a gauge for climate change. The current paper relied on the North Atlantic Oscillation instead, a climate index based on differences in air pressure (at sea level) between the Azores and Iceland. The NAO index measures the difference in pressure between the subtropical high in the Azores (warm air) and the subpolar low near Greenland (cold air). When it’s high, the northeastern U.S. will experience a warmer winter pattern. When the NAO index is low, cold winters are more likely.

The waters around New England are among the fastest-warming in the world, according to the team. Warmer waters in any given year translate to lower catch (and thus, job) numbers a few years later as fish development is impacted by environmental conditions.

“Warmer-than-average sea-surface temperatures have been shown to impact the productivity of lobsters, sea scallops, groundfish and other fisheries important to the region, especially when they are most vulnerable, from spawning through their first year of life,” Oremus explains.

In order to understand how changes in the NAO index affects catch numbers, the study gathered catch-size restrictions in effect for 56 commercial fisheries. Squid and some shrimp, for example, are typically caught in their first year of life, while most groundfish, such as haddock, are caught between 2-4 years old; the majority of fish are caught by age 6. The team then compared NAO indexes to aggregated catch figures from multiple fisheries, the resulting impact on revenue, and how this impacted the number of fishing jobs and their wages.

Increases in the NAO signal reduce total catches in New England by 2% per year for up to 5 years (and a 10% total reduction in fish catches). A 1-unit increase in the oscillation reduced commercial fishing revenue by 1% initially, accumulating to a 13% decline over six years. As revenues fall, so does the demand for labor — a 1-unit decline in the NAO index reduced fishing employment by 13% and wages by 35% for several years.

So far, from looking at permit data from all federal commercial fishing permits on the U.S. Atlantic coast, the authors found no evidence that fishermen are moving farther south where fish stocks are more stable (due to them being a mix of warm- and cold-water species).

“The science on this particular climate variability–the North Atlantic Oscillation–is very well established,” Oremus said. “But how will it change in the future?”

“There are two predictions: some say it is moving more into the positive phase, and some are predicting it will be more variable.”

The findings, she says, suggest that fish populations in the area will be impacted either way.

The paper “Climate variability reduces employment in New England fisheries, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Robot suit office.

A history of how computers went from stealing your heart, to stealing your job

Life as we know it today couldn’t exist without computers.

Computer board.

Image credits Michael Schwarzenberger.

It’s hard to overstate the role computers play in our lives today. Our silicony friends have left their mark on every facet of life, changing everything from how we date, to deep space exploration. Computers keep our planes flying and make sure there’s always enough juice in the grid for your toaster to work in the morning and the TV when you come back home. Through them, the POTUS’ rant on Twitter can be read by millions of people mere seconds after it’s typed. They also help propel women as equal participants in the labor market and as equal, full-right members of civic society today.

So let’s take a look at these literal wonders of technology, the boxes of metal and plastic that allowed the human race to outsource tedious work of the mind at an unprecedented pace.

The Brain Mk.1 Computer

When somebody today says ‘computer’, we instantly think of a PC — a personal computer. In other words, a machine, a device we’ve built to do calculations. We can make them do a lot of pretty spectacular stuff, such as predict asteroid orbit or run Skyrim, as long as we can describe it to them in terms of math.

But just 70 years ago, that wasn’t the case. While the first part of that abbreviation is pretty self-explanatory, the second one is a tip of the hat to the device’s heritage: the bygone profession of the computer. Human computers to be more exact, though of course, the distinction didn’t exist at that time. They were, in the broadest terms, people whose job was to perform all the mathematical computations society required by hand. And boy was it a lot of math.

Abacus.

Hello, I am abacus and I will be your guide.
Image via Pixabay.

For example, trigonometry tables. The one I’ve linked there is a pretty bare-bones version. It calculates 4 values (sine, cosine, tangent, and cotangent) for every degree up to 45 degrees (because trigonometry is funny and these values repeat, sometimes going negative). So, it required 46 times 4 = 186 calculations to put together.

Now, it’s not actually hard to calculate trigonometry values, but they are tedious and prone to mistakes because they involve fractions and a lot of decimals. Another issue was the size of these things. A per degree table works well for teaching high-schoolers about trigo. For top notch science, however, tables working on a per .1, or .01 degree basis were required — meaning a single table could need up to tens of thousands of calculations.

Then, you had stuff like artillery tables. These were meant to help soldiers in the field know exactly how high to point the barrel of a gun so that the shell would fall where the other guys were. They’d tell you how much a shell would likely deviate, at what angle it would hit, and how long it would take for it to get to a target. The fancier ones would even take weather into account, calculating how much you needed to tip the barrel in one direction or another to correct for wind.

I don’t even want to think how much work went into making these charts. It wasn’t the fun kind of work where you cheekily browse memes when the boss isn’t looking, either — it’s hours upon thousands of hours of repetitive, elbow-breaking math. When you were finally done, well guess who’s getting seconds (protip: it’s computer-you) because each chart had to be tailor-made for each type of gun, and each type of ammo. After that, you had to check every result to see if you messed up even by a few decimals. And then, then, if some guys crunched a table you used as reference wrong, you’d have to do it all over again.

US 3 inch gun artillery table.

O, M, G.
Gun range tables for the US 3-inch field gun, models 1902-1905, 15 lb shell.
Image credits William Westervelt, “Gunnery and explosives for field artillery officers,” via US Army.

It’s not just the narrow profession of computers we’re talking about, though. They were only the tip of the iceberg. Businesses needed accountants, designers and architects, people to deliver mail, people to type and copy stuff, organize files, keep inventory, and innumerable other tasks that PCs today do for us. Their job contracts didn’t read ‘computers’ but they performed a lot of the tasks we now turn to PCs for. It’s all this work of gathering, processing, and transmitting data that I’ll be referring to when I use the term “background computational cost”.

Lipstick computers

Engineers, being the smart people that we are, soon decided all this number crunching wasn’t going to work for us — that’s how the computer job was born. Overall, this division of labor went down pretty well. Let’s look at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA, the precursor of the NASA we all know and love today. The committee’s role was “to supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight with a view to their practical solution.” In other words, they were the rocket scientists of a world which didn’t yet have rockets. Their main research center was the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory (LMAL), which in 1935 employed five people in its “Computer Pool.”

Wing design big paper.

Boeing engineers designing a wing in the 80s. Today, we use AutoCAD.
Image via Quora.

The basic research path at LMAL was a reiterative process. Engineers would design a new wing shape, for example, and then send it to a wind tunnel for testing. The raw data results would then be sent to the computers to be processed into all sorts of useful information — how much lift it would produce, how much load it could take, potential flaws, any graphics that would be needed, so on. They were so useful to the research efforts, and so appreciated by the engineers, that by 1946 the LMAL would employ 400 ‘girl’ computers.

“Engineers were free to devote their attention to other aspects of research projects, while the computers received praise for calculating […] more in a morning than an engineer alone could finish in a day,” NASA recounts of a Langley memo.

“The engineers admit themselves that the girl computers do their work more rapidly and accurately than they would,” Paur Ceruzzi from Air and Space writes, citing the same document.

Computing, in tandem with the restrictions and manpower drain of WW2, would prove to be the key to liberalizing the job market for both sexes — all of those computers LMAL employed were women. People of both sexes used to take up the computing mantle — women, in particular, did so because they could work from home, receiving and returning their tasks via mail. But in a world where they were expected to be mothers, educated only as far as housekeeping, raising children, and social etiquette was concerned, the women at LMAL were working in cutting edge science. This was a well-educated group of women on which the whole research process relied — and they showed they can pull their weight just as well as their male counterparts, if not better.

Large-scale tabulation.

Can they run Solitaire though?
Image via Computer History Museum.

In the 1940s, Langley also began recruiting African-American women with college degrees to work as computers. Picture that; in a world where racial segregation went as far as separating bathrooms, dining rooms, and seat rights in buses, their work kept planes in the air and would eventually bring a man on the Moon.

Human computers were a massive boon to industry and research at the time. They’d make some mistakes, sure, but they were pretty good at spotting and fixing them. They weren’t very fast, but they were as fast as they had to be for the needs of the day. Finally, the processing boost they offered institutions, both public and private, justified their expense for virtually every business that needed them — so human computers drove the economy forward, helping create jobs for everyone else.

But they’ve had one other monumental effect on society: they brought women and other minorities into the job market. They showed that brainpower doesn’t care about sex or race, that anyone can turn their mind to bettering society.

Actual computers

But as science advanced, economies expanded and become more complicated, the background computational cost increased exponentially. While this was happening, people have started to figure out that brain power also doesn’t care about species. Or biology, for that matter.

PC fan.

“Sweating? How crude.”
Image credits Fifaliana Rakotoarison.

The simple fact is that I can type this sentence in 10 or so seconds. I can make as many mistakes as I want, ’cause I have a backspace button. I can even scratch the whole thing and tell you to go read about the oldest tree instead. I can put those blue hyperlinks in and you’ll find that article by literally moving your finger a little. It’s extremely easy for me. That’s because it has a huge background computational cost. To understand just how much of an absolute miracle this black box I’m working on is, let’s try to translate what it does in human-computer terms.

I could probably make due with one typewriter if I don’t plan to backspace anything and just leave these things behind instead. I backspace a lot, though, so I’d say about five people would be enough to let me write and re-write this article with a fraction of the speed I do at now. Somewhere between 15 to 20 people would allow me to keep comparable speed if I really try to limit edits to a minimum.

So far, I’ve used about 4 main sources of inspiration, Wiki for those tasty link trees, and nibbled around 11ish secondary sources of information. Considering I know exactly what I want to read and where to find it (I never do) I’d need an army of people to substitute Google, source and carry the papers, find the exact paragraphs I want, at least one person per publication to serve the role links do now, and so on. But let’s be conservative, let’s say I can make do with 60 people for this bit. When I’m done, I’ll click a button and you will be able to read this from the other face of the planet across the span of time. No printing press, no trucks and ships to shuttle the Daily ZME, no news stands needed.

That all adds up to what, between 66 people and ‘a small village’? I can do their work from home while petting a cat, or from the office while petting three cats. All because my computer, working with yours, and god knows how many others in between, substitutes the work these people would have to do as a background computational cost and then carries that with no extra effort on my part.

Hello, I’m Mr. Computer and I’ll be your replacement. (Help me I’m a slave!)

Robot hand.

“Will you not shake my hand, fleshling?”
Image credits Department of Defense.

The thing is that you, our readers, come to ZME Science for information. That’s our product. Well, information and a pleasing turn of phrase. We don’t need to produce prints to sell since that would mix what you’re here for with a lot of other things you don’t necessarily want, such as printing and transport, which translate to higher costs on your part. Instead, I can use the internet to make that information available to you at your discretion with no extra cost. It makes perfect economic sense both for me, since I know almost 90% of American households have a PC, and you too, since you get news when you want it without paying a dime.

But it also cuts out a lot of the middlemen. That, in short, is why computers are taking our jobs.

By their nature, industries dealing with information can easily substitute manpower with background computational cost, which is why tech companies have incredible revenue per employee — they make a lot a lot of money, but they only employ a few people with a lot of computers to help.

This effect, however, is seeping into all three main areas of the economy: agriculture, industry, and services. Smart agriculture and robot use will increase yields, and if they don’t drive the number of jobs down, they’ll at least lower the overall density of jobs in the sector. Industry is investing heavily in robots from simple ones to man (robot?) assembly lines, or highly specialized ones to perform underwater repairs. Service jobs, such as retail, delivery, and transport are also enlisting more and more robotic help in the shape of drones, autonomous shops, robot cooks. Not only can they substitute us, but the bots are actually much better at doing those things than we are.

That’s a problem I feel will eventually hit our society, and hit it very hard. If all you’re looking at is the bottom line, replacing human workers with computers makes perfect sense. It’s synonymous with replacing paid human labor with slave computational load, which costs nothing in comparison. That’s very good for business, but ruinous for the society at large: our economies, for better or for worse, are tailored around consumption. Without a large percentage of everyone having disposable income (in the form of wages) to spend on the things we produce, our whole way of doing things goes up in flames really fast. There’s glaring wealth inequality in the world even now, and a lot of people are concerned that robots will collapse the system — that the ultra rich of today will end up owning all the machines, all the money, all the goods.

But I’m an idealist. Collapse might not be that bad a thing, considering that our economies simply aren’t sustainable. The secret is changing for the better.

Robot suit office.

Not what I meant.
Image credits Ben Husmann.

Computers are so embedded into our lives today and have become so widespread because they do free thinking and free labor for us. Everywhere around you, right now, there are computers doing stuff you want and need. Stuff that you or someone else had to do for you, but not anymore. A continuous background computational cost that’s now, well, free. Dial somebody up, and a computer is handling that call for you — we don’t pay it anything. A processor is taking care that your clothes come out squeaky clean and not too wet from the washing machine at the laundromat. Another one handles your bank account. Press a button and you’ll get money out of a box at the instructions of a computer. We don’t pay them anything. We pay the people who ‘own’ them, however. They’re basically slaves. Maybe that has to change.

In a society where robots can do virtually infinite work for almost no cost, does work still have value? If we can make all the pots and pans we need without anyone actually putting in any effort to make them, should pots and pans still have a cost? We wouldn’t think it’s right to take somebody’s labor as our own, so why would we pay ‘someone’ for the work robots do for free? And if nobody has to work because we have all we need, what’s the role of money? Should we look towards a basic income model or are works of fiction, such as Ian Bank’s The Culture, which do away with money altogether, the best source of inspiration?

Oh, and we’re at a point where self-aware artificial intelligence is crossing the boundary between ‘fiction’ and ‘we’ll probably see this soon-ish’. That’s going to complicate the matters even further and, I think, put a very thick blanket of moral and ethical concerns on top. So these aren’t easy questions, but they’re questions we’re going to have to sit down and debate sooner rather than later.

No matter where the future takes us, however, I have to say that I’m amazed at what we managed to achieve so far. Humanity, the species that managed to outsource thought, risks making labor obsolete.

Now that’s a headline I’m pining for.

There are now more than 9.4 million people working in the renewable energy sector

According to a new report released by an environment and energy consultancy, 9.4 million people globally work in renewable energy, more than at any other point in history.

Image via Pexels.

The report was released by Allen and York, and it states that 2.8 million people work in solar PV, 1.6 million in liquid biofuels, and 1 million in wind, reflecting a “5% increase in 2015 and confirms the strength of this relatively new industry.”

Despite Trump’s best efforts, the US is still one of the leaders in renewable energy, alongside China, Brazil, India, Japan, and Germany. This relatively new industry has been more effective in creating jobs than coal or oil in the United States, and previous research has suggested that in terms of job generation, the overall potential of the renewable energy sector is much higher than that of the fossil fuel industry. This is easily visible in existing figures, as more and more Americans work in and support renewables. The report states:

“Exciting developments across US solar and wind has seen a 6% increase in renewable energy employment in 2016, reaching a total of 769,000 people working across the industry. According to figures published by the US Department of Energy (US DOE), the solar workforce increased by 25% in 2016, while wind employment increased by 32%.Driven by plummeting costs and growing consumer appetite, the renewable energy sector in the US looks set to thrive, despite their climate-sceptic President.”

This is not limited to the US or a specific area of the world. In Morocco, for instance, the market could soon yield over half a million new jobs, mostly in the solar industry (something which Morocco is already famous for). Despite highly questionable leadership, one in five Australian homes use solar energy, China has already cemented their dominance in terms of renewable energy generation, and Europe as a whole is also taking strides in the right direction, though with a slightly different twist. Residential solar energy is growing in popularity, especially in Germany, where ambitious tariffs facilitated great development in rooftop solar. Despite a natural trend, the role of good governance is extremely important, in more than one way.

Interestingly, the report also underscores the significance of education for the future of renewables. As more and more jobs emerge and diversify, having well-educated, qualified professionals is vital. Referring to the UK specifically, the report states:

“Digital skills should be included in the government’s future definition of basic skills and a comprehensive programme of upskilling developed in partnership with industry and training providers to ensure that the UK workforce at all levels” the report states. “A much greater, targeted focus is needed on promoting STEM subjects and engineering careers to under-represented groups (including women, people from BAME communities and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds) to fully unlock the talent potential in the UK.”

No matter how you look at it, the future appears bright for renewable jobs. Renewable energy technologies are getting cheaper, installations are growing almost exponentially year after year. For such a new industry, the results are indeed stunning. Hopefully, the world will embrace it instead of clinging to the past.

Solar Panel Workers.

Clean energy creates more than twice as many jobs than fossil in the US, report finds

Clean energy is providing more jobs for Americans than fossil fuel across the country. Big win for team green!

Solar Panel Workers.

Image via Pixabay.

A new report from environmental group Sierra Club shows that clean energy is making its mark in the United States’ economy. We’ve already talked about how investment in green tech seems to be more profitable and cost-efficient than fossil fuels, and people seem to have caught on to the fact. There are now more jobs in the renewable energy sector than in coal, oil, and gas in 41 American states and Washington D.C., the group reports.

Panel-to-paycheck

So when people think of green energy they probably think wind turbines, solar panels, and maybe dams. But the market as a whole includes a lot of fields, from generation, to storage (which is used to compensate for fluctuations in power output), to smart grid technology applications which make sure as little of the power is wasted as possible. Taken together, these jobs exceed those in the coal, oil, and gas sectors from extraction to processing and power generation. Drawing on job data recorded by the Department of Energy for 2017, Sierra Club found that clean energy jobs outweighed those in fossil fuels by more than 2.5 to one.

“Nationally, clean energy jobs outnumber all fossil fuel jobs by over 2.5 to 1; and they exceed all jobs in gas and coal sectors by 5 to 1,” the paper reads.

The report had many questioning the current’s administration’s motives for pursuing a fossil fuel agenda with such gusto.

“Right now, clean energy jobs already overwhelm dirty fuels in nearly every state across America, and that growth is only going to continue as clean energy keeps getting more affordable and accessible by the day,” said Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune.

“These facts make it clear that Donald Trump is attacking clean energy jobs purely in order to boost the profits of fossil fuel billionaires.”

The report goes on to say that despite the president’s best efforts, clean energy is growing strong in the US, with “over twenty cities nationwide” having set the goal to use 100% clean energy by 2030. The groups also warns that faced with this rapid development, we should be careful “not to make the mistakes of the past”, and ensure that the benefits brought by clean energy are equitably shared instead of pooled by a few individuals or companies.

The way forward

Putting workers and the community first, especially those who depended on fossil fuels in the past, is the way to go, Sierra Club says. The report highlights job stability, opportunities for fair and merit-based upward mobility in the industry, and secure pathways to the middle class for workers as a way to ensure this equitable sharing of benefits.

“This means supporting high road job strategies like responsible trade policies, project labor agreements, community benefits agreements, employer neutrality in union organizing drives, local hire, union apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs, and efforts to open more of those opportunities to communities of color and low-income people,” the paper explains.

“In practice, this means working tirelessly to ensurethat the communities and workers historicallydependent on fossil fuels are prioritized and putfirst at every stage of our ongoing transition to aneconomy powered more fully by clean energy.”

Investment in workforce development should also be a prime focus for the industry, as almost three-quarters of employers across all energy sectors found it difficult to hire skilled workers. The report concludes that policies aimed at investing in and incentivizing clean energy could generate millions of new jobs across America — more than the fossil fuel sector ever could.

You can read the full report on Scribd.

 

There are now twice as many solar jobs as coal jobs in the US

Regardless of what one fossil-fuel-lover president may do, renewable energy is thriving in the US. Even though solar power provides just a drop in the country’s energy consumption bucket, it already provides more than twice the jobs coal provides.

The average price of solar panels has gone down dramatically, and will likely continue to do so.

new survey from the nonprofit Solar Foundation found that the industry employs more than 260,000 people:

“Solar employs slightly more workers than natural gas, over twice as many as coal, over three times that of wind energy, and almost five times the number employed in nuclear energy,” the report notes. “Only oil/petroleum has more employment (by 38%) than solar.”

This is impressive when you consider that gas and coal produce much more energy than solar and still they provide fewer jobs, but the comparison isn’t exactly fair. Most of the jobs in solar come from installation, so they are not permanent. This is especially important because solar is growing from a very tiny base, whereas coal, gas, and oil are already well established. Lots of people are installing solar panels, but no one is making new coal plants — or rather, almost no one.

But looking at it from the point of view of costs, it’s not exactly a good thing that solar is creating all these jobs.

The only reason why solar isn’t dreadfully cheap is directly tied to manpower costs. Solar is much more labor-intensive than you’d think, requiring more manpower per megawatt-hour than any other power source. The natural gas industry employs as many people as solar but provides nearly 50 times as much energy, according to Vox. Technology advancements are bringing the price of solar energy lower and lower, but as more and more panels get installed, the overall cost of solar will dwindle even more, diluting the installation costs. Sure, a dominant solar industry won’t provide nearly as many jobs, but in the meantime, the argument that renewable doesn’t create new jobs is null and void. Justifying a return to fossil fuel based on that would be reckless and in the current climate, immoral.

A coal mining monument in Colorado. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A CEO’s pay is enough to train all the company’s laid-off coal miners for jobs in sustainable energy

A coal mining monument in Colorado. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A coal mining monument in Colorado. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The coal industry in the United States is at its all-time low. In 2014, demand for coal peaked for the first time and has since plummeted. Meanwhile, coal companies are tanking. For instance, Peabody Energy, the world’s biggest coal company, sold stocks below $1 in 2015 when they used to be $72 in 2011.

Thousands are being laid off, but somehow the top execs are getting a raise, as ZME Science previously reported, despite the companies they ran lost 58% of their value on average between 2010 and 2014.

A number of factors have dragged down the coal industry. Increased competition from natural gas (thanks to the fracking boom) decreased demand and stricter environmental regulations have all hurt the industry. Since 2011, the coal sector as a whole has lost 94 percent of its value according to a Bloomberg analysis.

Meanwhile, the sustainable energy industry is growing in great leaps, adding jobs 20 times faster than the US average. In China, more people work in renewable energy than in oil & gas, and the United States isn’t lagging too far behind in light of the hundreds of thousands of layoffs following the barrel’s meltdown.

The energy industry is up for a massive paradigm shift, one that’s happening fast but was always predictable. Burning fuel that’s been trapped in the ground for millions of years is not only harmful and expensive on so many levels, it’s also freaking primitive.

Critics, however, say that this transition is bad for the economy because a lot of people will lose their jobs. Well, that’s what they said when tractors displaced plows or when cars made horse and buggies obsolete. Get with the times, folks — it’s called progress.

Aside from the obvious arithmetic that says a displaced industry loses jobs only to leave room for another to add jobs, these people who’ve lost or will lose their jobs working in coal or oil&gas can repurpose their skills to join the ranks of the renewable energy sector. And this is a lot easier than it might sound, provided there’s a will to do it.

In a new study published in Energy Economics, researchers at Michigan Technological University and Oregon State University found a minimal amount of money is enough to train coal workers to help them switch from a dying to a booming industry, the sustainable energy one.

Over the next 15 years, the researchers calculated that it will cost between $180 million (best-case scenario) to $1.8 billion (worst-case scenario) for the vast majority of the current people employed in the coal industry to switch. The worst-case scenario basically assumes that all of the workforce currently employed by coal will transition to clean tech. The best-case scenario assumes that all workers whose professions don’t depend on coal, such as electricians or accountants, will find jobs in another industry.

Perhaps the most startling finding was that the salary of a CEO was more than enough money to re-purpose the skills of all the company’s employees. They came to the conclusion after averaging the training costs for coal workers. fFirst, they combed through statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to identify all the coal industry positions, the skill sets required for each and the yearly salary. Then, they determined the closest equivalent position in clean tech for each coal position and evaluated the costs.

“For example, an operations engineer in the coal industry could retrain to be a manufacturing technician in solar and expect about a 10 percent salary increase. Similarly, explosive workers, ordinance handlers, and blasters in the coal industry could use their sophisticated safety experience and obtain additional training to become commercial solar technicians and earn about 11 percent more on average,” wrote Joshua Pearce, the study’s co-author and associate professor of materials science and engineering at Michigan Technological University.

The researchers identified four scenarios under which this transition can be funded:

  • Coal Employees Self-fund Retraining. “In this status-quo scenario coal employees must shoulder the entire burden of retaining themselves when their employer closes the mine or power plant and no policy intervention is necessary.”
  • Policies Promoting Coal Industry Paying for Employee Retraining. “In the second scenario, the coal industry is either mandated to pay for their employee retraining or chooses to do so on their own.”
  • Individual States Policies to Provide “Coal to Solar” Transition Programs. ” Implementation of the retraining could take several forms: i) scholarships, education vouchers and grants for coal employees to State universities, colleges and community colleges, ii) subsidized expansion of solar industry training such as the workshops and classes provided by entities like SEI, iii) State sponsored free courses and certificates for PV positions, and iv) no, low-interest or subsidized loans for education and retraining.” 
  • U.S. Federal Government Policy to Fund the Coal to Solar Transition. “In this scenario the U.S. federal government funds the coal to solar transition alone.”

Green Tech Media reports that the CEO of Consol Energy earned $12 million in 2012, while the top executives of Arch Coal, which has filed for bankruptcy, collectively netted $29 million. In both cases, these cash handouts would’ve been enough to re-train the thousands of employees they laid off, as the researchers found only 5 percent of a coal company’s typical revenue would be enough to fund the retraining of their former works (scenario #2).

“If they’re going to use energy alternatives, why can’t they bring a solar panel plant here, or train us even to install them in the field?” said Bob Wilson, a former coal miner for Emerald Mine, which closed down after Alpha Natural Resources filed bankruptcy. “Coal miners are some of the most versatile people here on the planet. We’ve all run equipment, done welding, fabricating. We’ve built million-dollar belt drives from the ground up. We can do this stuff with a little bit of help.”

“Where’s our bailout? It’s not a handout to get our houses re-built,” said Wilson. “We just need the help to get a good-paying job. We just need unemployment extended for two years, so these people can train for a good job. That’s all we’re asking for.”

 

Are you ready to greet our new office robot overlords? (C) MotherJonas

Half of U.S. jobs at risk of being taken over by computers

 

Are you ready to greet our new office robot overlords? (C) MotherJonas

Are you ready to greet our new office robot overlords? (C) MotherJonas

An Oxford study that assessed the risks that the introduction of automation in work sectors currently managed by people might have on employment found that 47% of jobs in the U.S. could be replaced by computers/robots. Most of these jobs are low-wage and routine-based, however the study stresses that once with the advent of more robust computing systems capable of distinguishing patterns, arguably humans’ greatest leverage in front of computer today, might swing away jobs that are more complex in nature. Examples given are diagnosis machines or legal research computing algorithms.

“While computerization has been historically confined to routine tasks involving explicit rule-based activities, algorithms for big data are now rapidly entering domains reliant upon pattern recognition and can readily substitute for labor in a wide range of non-routine cognitive tasks,” write study authors Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne.

It’s important to stress that the authors do not claim half of all U.S. jobs currently in occupation will be taken over by bots, but that there’s the risk these may be replaced. Evaluating how the work force will look like decades from now is an extremely complex task with high margins +/- of predictions.

Some might argue that this isn’t the first time the working class has to adapt to accommodate employment paradigm shifts. The industrial age is a worthy example. Millions of jobs were displaced then in a myriad of fields by factories. The introduction of fast-paced and efficient assembly lines at the turn of the last century produced a new displacement. Massive globalization starting a few decades ago also caused millions of jobs in developed countries to be lost at the hand of outsourced cheap-labor in developing countries, mostly from Asia.

The workforce has been forced to adapt, although periods of transition have always been followed by turmoil. The real question is will this transition period be this time more difficult than the previous ones? As more and more jobs become automated, it may be the case that people could have a tougher time at re-purposing their skill set. In an article for the New York Times, Economists David Autor and David Dorn argue that most of the jobs that will be displaced in the near future by computers are those currently classed as entry-level. Displaced workers will thus have do move down the ladder and settle for lower paying jobs – jobs that are cheaper to be handled by humans than computers. This will lead to an even further deepening of the gap between the lower class and upper class – basically bashing the middle class. These possibly foreseeable consequences need to be thoroughly assessed by policymakers.

[READ ON] Chinese manufacturer of Apple iPads and iPhones wants to replace workers with 1 million robots

Story via Singularity Hub