nharvey COVID-19 Took Jobs; Will Automation Keep Them? Skip to main content

COVID-19 Took Jobs; Will Automation Keep Them?

Posted by: Iliana Vizcarra
Model United Nations, NMSU
April 26, 2020


Since the outbreak of the coronavirus our day-to-day realities have become massively distorted. Students attend class from the comfort of bed, parents begin to understand the need for a teacher pay raise, and millions of Americans have become unemployed in a matter of days. As we attempt to piece together our idea of normalcy, we are collectively navigating a haze of uncertainty. At the core of this maze is a question fraying the nerves of almost everyone; what is the outlook for employment in this novel new world?


Forbes reported that the week of March 28th saw the number of claims for temporary unemployment surge to an unprecedented 6.65 million. A breakdown of the numbers by the ADP Research Institute confirms what many have already suspected; the hardest hit have been those in the service industry, primarily small business, and those in trade, transportation and utilities. While some states are seeing cases decline and others are even lifting stay-at-home orders, the path to a rise in employment has yet to be concretely laid. While there are more questions than answers, the pandemic has provided us the unfortunate opportunity to address issues that have lingered in the peripheral attention for the majority of Americans.


The fear of automation inevitably eliminating jobs in manufacturing has been a continuous, yet often overlooked, talking point in the American political arena. As of 2019 an Oxford Report estimated that globally 8.5% of jobs in manufacturing could be displaced by automation; yet, could a global pandemic become an unintended gateway into this new terrain? Experts say yes. In an interview with Vox, senior fellow and director at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, Mark Muro, explains that economic downturn results in increased levels of automation. With the already incredible number of jobs lost due to coronavirus and a risk of recession on the table, the automation of routine jobs that can prove replaceable does not seem out of the question. Rather than questioning if automation is a risk, we should be preparing for when automation becomes something we can no longer overlook. The first step is to stop treating automation like villain in the story of the American workforce.


Efforts to prioritize the discussion surrounding automation has been on the rise within international bodies like the United Nations. In a brief to the United Nations Global Sustainable Development Report, Friedrich Soltau attempts to breakdown the implications of automation on the future of employment, especially for developing countries at risk of being left behind. Soltau emphasizes the importance of considering the impact automation could have on “social and political systems,” with special mind paid to, “[ensuring that the benefits to society do not exacerbate existing levels of inequality.” This is extremely important as the worst way to pay for the age of automation is with the livelihoods of the already disadvantaged. Starting at the international level offers a top down approach to crafting policies that protect workers as employment shifts to more widespread use of automation; however, whether or not this is received and prioritized at the national level is a different story.  


This article aims to start a discussion rather than answer a very broad question. Automation may seem like a threat but in actuality it is the future and we should embrace it and find a place in it.  As we are forced to confront the uncomfortable reality of many Americans, we have a shared responsibility to hold our elected officials accountable for the transitions to automation in the workforce. Rather than arguing against it, let us discuss how to mainstream current jobs into a new era of automation with the goal of minimizing job loss. There may be more questions than answers during these uncertain times; however, if there is one thing for certain it is that human compassion and ingenuity remain a constant that is yet to be replaced.