Future Pa. jobs depend on adjustments to automation, retail losses

HARRISBURG, Aug. 14 – To plan for Pennsylvania’s future economy, state Rep. Mike Schlossberg said comprehensive studies should be undertaken to look at the effects of robots and automation and the collapse of retail jobs.

“We owe it to Pennsylvania’s workers to help them secure good jobs. Pennsylvania has a proud history of manufacturing with jobs that provide family-sustaining wages. How those jobs change and what opportunities exist in manufacturing will determine the security of so many Pennsylvanians,” said Schlossberg, D-Lehigh.

The lawmaker said the economy has undergone seismic shifts and evidence points to those shifts continuing for the foreseeable future.

“We need to better understand how these shifts affect Pennsylvania. To plan for the future, we need to understand what jobs currently anchoring communities will not exist, what new skills workers will need to compete in the changing economy, the demand for services and how tax revenue will change,” he said.

Every day, emerging technologies are seeking to improve people’s lives. For the most part, these technologies are attempting to make tasks more efficient and convenient. Yet, these technologies often come at a price, creating special challenges to workers vulnerable to job displacement. Some scholars are predicting a massive labor reorganization, similar to what the world experienced during the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. 

Some researchers estimate that as many as 47 percent of jobs could be automated in the next two decades.  

Because the long-term effects associated with these technologies remain widely unknown, several states, including New York and Virginia, have introduced legislation to conduct studies on the matter. Based on the data collected, solutions will be sought to staunch any ill effects to the respective state’s workers and economy. Further, education solutions will be pursued to prepare future workers for tomorrow’s workforce.

Schlossberg’s first piece of legislation would direct the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee to conduct a comprehensive study on the effects of robots, automation and artificial intelligence on Pennsylvania’s workforce and economy. Additionally, the measure would establish an advisory committee composed of a variety of representatives from manufacturing and technology to education, ensuring a wide range of authority and insight into the issue.

“Looking out for our workers and the future economy of the commonwealth is paramount to maintaining a healthy and prosperous Pennsylvania,” he said.

Schlossberg is requesting a second LBFC study that would look at the impact of retail store closures in the state. The study would focus on retaining workers, effects on the state economy and repurposing locations vacated by retail stores.

Nationwide, retail stores, malls and shopping centers sit shuttered and abandoned. Once a hub of opportunity and community, they have been forced to close due to the shift in the way Americans buy goods and services. Consumers increasingly buy online rather than shopping in a physical store. As this trend continues to decimate the suburban landscape, many experts predict a large movement in the work force, similar to that experienced during the 20th century decline of urban retail in American downtowns.

Many areas across Pennsylvania have experienced the closing of major department stores in their communities. The list of store closures and the numbers of displaced workers grows daily. In May, economic experts reported the fast pace of stores closing in 2017 is higher than that experienced at the height of the Great Recession in 2008.

“Representing Allentown, which has a downtown that saw major decline in retail in the 1980s and 1990s, I’ve seen firsthand how the collapse of retail hurts not only the people who lose their jobs, but the morale of the community. Identifying solutions to reuse and revitalize shuttered stores and shopping complexes is vital in creating jobs and promoting a healthy state economy,” Schlossberg said.

Both studies would need to be completed by Dec. 31, 2018.