UPS and the Future of Work

by Bill Johnston

Recently, I explored the growth of personal services occupations, one of the trends that help explain why employment is not likely to decline soon, if ever.

What about occupations that are shrinking? Inevitably technology is destroying many occupations as well as creating them. What jobs are at greatest risk of becoming obsolete?

The Wall Street Journal recently brought news on this subject.  Trucks without drivers are going to be on the highway soon.

According to the WSJ,

United Parcel Service Inc. has ordered 2,600 heavy-duty trucks this year with Bendix’s [collision avoidance] system, and plans to eventually expand that to its entire fleet of more than 16,000 highway trucks. The system also provides blind-spot alerts and warnings when a vehicle drifts out of its lane—safety features that UPS considers a precursor to more automated driving technologies.

"It’s something we’re very interested in,” said Jules Moise, vice president of transportation technology for UPS. “It’s not a matter of if we’ll have autonomous vehicles on the road, it’s when."

While city traffic (and strong unions) may keep driverless taxicabs off urban streets for a few more years, long-haul trucking will become autonomous soon. The computers guiding these vehicles will see hundreds of yards in front and behind; they won't ever drive sleepy or distracted. In highway trips between suburban freight yards they will immediately prove themselves safer than trucks driven by humans. 

For the 1.6 million Americans who drive tractor-trailers, jobs are going to get scarcer in the years ahead.

automatic for the people

Truckers are not alone. Researchers at Oxford University have recently published a study that sheds light on the jobs that are most vulnerable to technological obsolescence. The research team analyzed which types of knowledge and skills were most and least difficult to automate. Then they scored a large fraction of O*NET occupations on these elements. Here is a sample of what they found:

Jobs With Highest Risk of Automation
(Probability)
Tellers .98
File Clerks .97
Cashiers .97
Office Clerks .96
Industrial Truck and Tractor Operators .93

Jobs at Least Risk of Automation
Recreational therapists .003
Mental health and substance abuse social workers .0031
Physicians and surgeons .0042
Elementary school teachers .0044
Human resource managers .0055
Computer systems analysts .0065


Although many social and institutional factors will affect the number and timing of job losses, the news from UPS is sobering. When the main factors to be considered are safety and cost effectiveness, automation will proceed rapidly for jobs that can be easily automated. For job safety and security, your best bet is to get into a job that's impossible to replace.