Transitioning the Workforce in the Era of Autonomous Vehicles: Meet Dr. Algernon Austin

August 28, 2018 | 9:02 am
Photo: Dllu/Wikimedia Commons
Richard Ezike
Former Contributor

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) are sure to bring about a significant shift in the job market. While it is important to think about how many jobs will be lost or created because of this change, there must be a focus on the workers themselves and what they will need to support a just transition. As explained in our policy brief Maximizing the Benefits of Self-Driving Vehicles:

Self-driving technology will create jobs for some, but it will change or reduce employment opportunities for others, especially in the trucking, delivery, taxi, and ridesharing industries. Before self-driving vehicles comprise a significant share of the markets for passenger cars and heavy-duty trucks, policy must recognize the economic impact of this technology, and must support career pathways and transitions for the Americans who will be affected by automated driving technology. In addition, jobs created in the self-driving vehicle industry should be accessible to all, with a focus on increasing career opportunities for populations historically underrepresented in transportation and technology industries.

I spoke with Dr. Algernon Austin*, an economist with the think tank Dēmos and co-author of “Stick Shift: Autonomous Vehicles, Driving Jobs, and the Future of Work,” to get an expert’s opinions on the future of the driving workforce. I asked him about potential impacts of AVs on the labor market and he discussed ways to provide job training opportunities for transportation workers that will be affected by the AV revolution.



Richard Ezike: When discussing the possible negative impacts of autonomous vehicles, job loss will always come up. What do we know about the Americans that hold driving jobs? Who, exactly, is at risk here?

Dr. Algernon Austin: Driving occupations are disproportionately held by men, and when broken down by race and ethnicity, those overrepresented in the driving industry include minority groups such as African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans. People within those groups face a potential loss of jobs that pay very good wages.

RE: Are all drivers’ jobs threatened equally? Will self-driving vehicles be able to replace human critical tasks like unloading packages from a delivery truck?

AA: There are varying levels of threat to the jobs that will be affected by AVs. Currently, the jobs that appear to be most at risk are taxi drivers, followed by jobs in the freight industry. It is feasible to see autonomous trucks replacing human drivers for long freight hauls. Those in the package delivery space are also at risk, but because those jobs require manually delivering a package to an individual, the threat level is not as severe.

RE: Unions have raised concerns about self-driving vehicles affecting employment. What are ways labor groups can work to protect employees as automated technologies become more widespread?

AA: There was a recent article published in the Washington Post about how the gig economy is not competitive at all. The researchers stated that an online market is not ideal – there are a few power players that control the market and prices, and potential employees cannot easily compare wages across different job offers. The researchers suggested supporting worker cooperatives or labor unions that would set up online labor markets to prevent the system from being stacked against workers.

Simply put, if a commitment is made to protect workers and not jobs, we can easily make this technological transition.

What it really comes down to, as suggested by Jean Tirole, Nobel Prize willing economist and author of “Economics for the Common Good,” is the protection of workers instead of jobs. Both unions and governments should adopt this stance, develop a strong safety net, and encourage retraining and skill development. With such strong programs available, people would be less resistant to technological change, which we see often now when people are asked about the impact of technology in their lives.

RE: People in other professions have seen unemployment due to automation in the past, notably in manufacturing and mining, and will continue to see these effects across sectors in the future. Is the loss of driving jobs unique? Should we be trying to solve this problem systemically, or looking at solutions focused specifically in this sector?

AA: This is not a unique situation. The history of technological displacement has been one of constant evolution and the problem needs to be tackled in a systemic manner. We need to protect workers with a safety net and to eliminate poverty and homelessness. We are a rich country and we should not have so many people suffering from financial hardship. Simply put, if a commitment is made to protect workers and not jobs, we can easily make this technological transition.

RE: Education and retraining programs have been tried on different scales to varying levels of success in the past. What do you think makes an effective job retraining program, and what kinds of resources are needed to really help workers transition into a new career?

AA: The most effective programs are apprenticeships, which combine on-the-job training with classroom instruction. Such programs allow people to gain new skills while working and earning an income. You must remember, most people needing retraining are adults who have families. It is not reasonable to believe they can stop working and take on student debt to pursue a four-year degree.

Sector-specific training is also a viable strategy and of interest to many companies. What companies can do is set up programs at a community college that train people for the skills most in demand by the company. Sectoral training focuses on quickly growing industries, and usually leads to jobs that pay well.

It also needs to be ensured that there are a variety of affordable training programs – both short and long term – for workers of all ages. Increasingly we are seeing older adults going to two-year colleges and working part time, and the American education system needs to adjust to accommodate those adults’ lives.

RE: Assuming the federal government doesn’t make any significant changes to mitigate these job losses, what can state and local governments do to proactively deal with this issue? What systems can they put into place to help those that will be out of a job when AVs hit the market in full force?

AA: State and local governments can support sectoral and apprenticeship training programs. They can reform their educational policies with adults who are transitioning in mind and support strong safety nets.

They should also use their voices to speak to the federal government. Job loss is a looming issue and the transition in the AV environment needs to be managed. Unfortunately, there has been very little attention given to the negative impacts this new technology could have on the labor market. We are getting warning signs however, and state and local leaders should ask federal officials to help protect workers.

* Dr. Algernon Austin conducts economic policy research for the Dēmos think tank. He has been a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Global Policy Solutions, and he was the first Director of the Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy. Prior to his shift to the “think tank world”, he served on the faculty of Wesleyan University. He has discussed racial inequality on PBS, CNN, NPR, and on other national television and radio networks.