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Report: Pierce County jobs at 'high risk' of automation

Courtesy of WorkForce Central
A map showing the proportion of jobs in each Washington county considered to be at "high risk" of automation.

Nearly half of jobs in Pierce County are at "high risk" of being replaced by advancing technology, according to a recent report assessing the threats posed by automation. 

The report by WorkForce Central found that four of the county's six most common occupations — retail salesperson, food preparer or server, cashier and office clerk — are at "high risk" for automation. 

Those jobs have a 75 percent or greater chance of being replaced by technology, according to the report.

WorkForce Central, a taxpayer-funded agency that helps connect workers with employers, relied on data from Oxford University researchers Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne, who assessed how susceptible hundreds of different professions are to automation. 

Pierce County's higher share of service-related jobs makes its economy more vulnerable than neighboring Puget Sound counties, WorkForce Central says. Altogether, 47 percent of jobs in Pierce County are in professions considered “high risk” for automation. 

King County is somewhat insulated from the threat by its concentration of software and aerospace jobs, while Thurston County benefits from a "higher-than-expected" number of social workers and environmental scientists, according to the report.

WorkForce Central chief executive Linda Nguyen said communities can mitigate job losses from automation by investing early in retraining programs. 

"Don’t freak out," Nguyen said. "It’s just we need to be conscious that the change is coming... and that we need to have a plan of action. Otherwise we will be caught off guard, people will be displaced. It takes time to train in something new."

She pointed to other moments in history when workers adapted to technological advances.

"Way back in the day, we used to have lamp lighters," Nguyen said. "Don’t need those anymore. We used to have switchboard operators. So change, automation, has always occurred in this country, and there’s always been jobs." 

WorkForce Central is hosting a forum this week exploring the future of work in Pierce County featuring Martin Ford, author of the book "Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future." 

The forum, at the University of Washington-Tacoma, starts at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday. Tickets are $25. 

The threat of automation adds to a list of economic challenges facing Pierce County officials. Nearly half of workers who live in Pierce County commute on traffic-clogged roads to jobs outside the county.

Economic development efforts have focused on creating and retaining jobs in the South Sound so fewer workers must travel to King County and elsewhere. 

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.