On August 12, 2019, Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang tweeted, “I’ve done the MATH, it’s not immigrants taking our jobs, it’s automation. Instead of blaming immigrants, let’s give our citizens the means to thrive through the fourth industrial revolution.” This, like much of Yang’s and others’ current discourse regarding automation, is focused on an exaggerated fear that automation can and soon will replace workers’ roles in production, resulting in widespread job loss. But for hundreds of years, technological progress has continually reshaped the way work is done—and yet this progress has never resulted in a long-term decline in the labor force. Focusing on overstated risks of job loss from automation distracts from efforts to advocate for higher wages, better benefits, and increased bargaining power—issues that have been, and will continue to be, essential to the well-being of workers and their families.
However, while there is no reason to believe that automation will lead to widespread, sustained decline in the overall number of jobs, there will be specific jobs, industries, and workers for whom the impact of automation will come with real costs, at least in the short term. One industry in which concerns about automation may be warranted in the near term is transportation. Ford and Volvo have both announced plans to put fully autonomous vehicles on the road as early as 2021; Honda has announced a partnership with GM to begin developing autonomous vehicles; and Nissan recently introduced “no-hands driving” on highways in its ProPilot 2.0. While consumer skepticism may slow down the industry’s timelines, many advances have already been made: Most new cars have computerized driver assistance options; Tesla’s Autosteer has logged at least one billion miles of supervised autonomous driving; and Caterpillar is already producing autonomous vehicles for hauling mining materials.
The automation of transportation could have particular implications for truck drivers. Although truck drivers represent a small share of all workers, that share has grown since the early 1980s: Truck drivers have gone from being 0.7% to just under 1% of the total workforce. More than one-third of these truck drivers are black and Hispanic men. According to EPI analysis of 2016–2018 Current Population Survey Outgoing Rotation Group (CPS-ORG) microdata, among full-time workers, “Driver/Sales Workers and Truck Drivers” is currently the number one occupation for black men and the number two occupation for Hispanic men. For the sake of this analysis, my definition of “Truck Drivers” includes this occupational category as well as the category “Industrial Truck and Tractor Operators” and is limited to the detailed industry categories “Trucking Services” or “Truck Transportation.” In order to have a large enough sample to examine employment by race, ethnicity, and gender, I combine data from the CPS-ORG into five-year intervals.
Since the early 1980s, when white men made up 84.0% of truck drivers, there has been a steady increase in representation of men of color. The black male share in trucking has increased from 9.2% to 16.0% between 1979 and 2018, and the Hispanic male share has increased from 3.9% to 19.9%. Black, Hispanic, and white women combined still occupy a very small, but growing, share of the truck driving workforce, having increased from 2.1% to 4.1% over that same period (Figure A).
Truck driving occupations offer higher earnings than other jobs typically held by workers with a high school diploma. The wage premium earned by truck drivers is particularly significant for high-school-educated black and Hispanic men given the overall wage disadvantage they face in the workforce. Truck drivers report an average 28.9% higher weekly earnings than other high-school-educated workers ($1,002.42 compared with $777.95); this is due in part to their hourly wage being an average of 11.2% higher ($20.78 compared with $18.69) and in part to their average hours worked per week being 14.8% higher (48.0 hours compared with 41.8 hours).
To sum up, truck driving is potentially an industry where rapid automation may lead some workers, disproportionately black and Hispanic men, to face displacement and its associated costs. Policymakers need to be prepared to mitigate the harmful effects on the workers affected by such displacement.
Nevertheless, in looking at automation’s effects more generally, it is important that policymakers not get sidetracked—by fears of widespread job loss due to automation—from addressing the chronic and more pervasive issues affecting workers. Automation has never led to long-term decline in the overall number of jobs. And automation is likely to take place slowly, over time, as employers will need to make large technological investments and gradually phase these changes into their existing business model—allowing the workforce some time to adapt to the changes. While policymakers do need to be attentive to changes in specific industries, and seek to mitigate any harmful effects on specific groups of workers, they should also recognize that policies that boost workers’ power and increase job quality more broadly are fundamental to the well-being of these and other workers over the long term. These policies include strengthening labor standards, increasing enforcement of these standards and anti-discrimination laws, and reforming labor law so that workers who want to join a union are able to join together with their co-workers to boost their pay and working conditions.
Carl Romer was an intern at the Economic Policy Institute in Summer 2019. Carl will earn his B.A. in economics from Howard University in May 2020 and plans to pursue a Ph.D. in economics.