As a personal care aide, Marcia Olson spends 35 hours a week cooking, cleaning, giving insulin shots or just spending time with her elderly client.
"Anybody can do this job, but it isn't for everybody," says the 61-year-old Olson, who has been a care aide for 23 years. It's a hard job, but rewarding, she says.
By 2017, about 225,000 more aides like Olson are likely to be needed, making it one of the fastest-growing jobs. But with wages around $10 per hour, it's hard to find good candidates.
It may get even harder. Home health care workers, food service workers, retail salespeople and custodians will account for nearly 1 million of the 2.4 million new, low-skill jobs expected to be added in the U.S. by 2017, according to a USA TODAY analysis of jobs data from Economic Modeling Specialists Intl. and CareerBuilder.
As a personal care aide, Marcia Olson, does laundry, makes meals and helps Bill Langlois get to appointments.(Photo: MaryJo Webster, USA TODAY)
But advances in technology mean such workers may be replaced by robots like HERB, the "Home-Exploring Robot Butler" under development at Carnegie-Mellon. HERB is learning to retrieve and deliver objects, prepare simple meals and empty a grocery bag.
"These 'safe havens' for low-skill workers may not be there in the decades to come," says Carl Benedikt Frey, one of the authors of The Future of Employment, a 2013 University of Oxford study estimating the scope of automation. "A lot of low-skill workers will need to acquire creative and social skills to stay competitive in the labor market in the future."
Low-skill workers, experts say, need to look past any short-term job growth.
HERB, the “Home Exploring Robot Butler” is being developed by Carnegie Mellon to provide assistance to the elderly and other homebound individuals. This would most closely line up with the work now done by “personal care aides”(Photo: Carnegie Mellon University Quality of Life Technology Center)
"We're moving the unskilled jobs into skilled jobs. And that is going to be a challenge for us going forward," says Henrik Christensen, director of the Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Machines at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "If you are unskilled labor today, you'd better start thinking about getting an education."
USA TODAY's analysis suggests some metro areas will gain more low-skill jobs in the next two years than others. Tourist destinations, for example, are expected to gain jobs such as food service workers, retail salespeople, housekeepers and taxi drivers by 2017. Las Vegas is expected to add nearly 900 gaming dealers, and Cape Coral-Fort Myers, Fla., needs nearly 500 landscapers.
Health care jobs are growing nearly everywhere, and some construction jobs are showing high demand in certain metro areas.
Half of all jobs — and 70% of low-skill jobs— may be replaced by robots or other technology in the next 10 to 20 years, according to Frey's research.
Metro areas that have a large share of low-skill jobs are at greatest risk of economic turmoil. In places like Las Vegas; Corpus Christi, Texas; Fort Myers and Lancaster, Pa., between 50% and 60% of all jobs are at high risk of being eliminated. Places dominated by high-skill jobs requiring bachelor's degrees or more education, including Washington, D.C.; San Jose; Durham-Chapel Hill, N.C.; Boston; and San Francisco, have only about one-third of all jobs at high risk.
Driverless cars, robots that can walk and talk, and smart machines that learn on their own are moving technology into realms once thought only for humans.
"We don't just have machines that are faster than us, but we also are starting to have machines that might be smarter than us," says Moshe Vardi, a computational engineering professor at Rice University in Houston. "There will never be things we cannot automate. It's just a matter of time."
The Coming Disruption: Changes for Transportation, Health and Service workers
Google's driverless car might be a watershed moment for the labor market.
Christensen says kids born today may never need to drive a car. That's astonishing considering just a decade ago, most robotics experts thought a driverless car would be impossible. But advances in technology mean complex decisions, such as making a left turn against oncoming traffic, now can be made by a machine.
Robotics experts Henrik Christensen and Steve Cousins discuss the future of the field. VPC
A fully autonomous vehicle still has legal and regulatory hurdles, yet many auto manufacturers are producing cars with similar auto-pilot features that use the same technology.
If driverless vehicles get a green light, they could dramatically affect transportation jobs, the fourth-largest occupation sector and 7% of the workforce. (Google declined to comment for this story.)
Driverless trains and underground mine vehicles are already being used in other parts of the world. Tractor-trailer drivers, train engineers, garbage collectors, taxi drivers and bus drivers are all jobs that have an 80% or higher probability of being automated, according to the Oxford study.
Improvement in sensors — the eyes and ears of a machine — make it possible to detect a traffic slowdown, or for janitorial robots to map the floors of a large commercial space, replacing workers who now push heavy machines for five or six hours per shift.
Earlier this year, a robot named Botlr went to work for an Aloft Hotel in Silicon Valley, delivering items like extra towels and toothbrushes to guests upon request.
Not much larger than a child and with a black bow-tie, Botlr navigates the hotel on its own but will send an alert if it encounters an obstacle.
"It's not going to replace butlers, or be used in a kind of (hotel) brand where you have very high expectation of human interaction," says Steve Cousins, CEO of Savioke, the Silicon Valley company that made Botlr.
A USA TODAY investigation looks at the future of robots and what jobs they may be able to take over from their human counterparts.
Hospitals are also using robots to deliver lab specimens, linens, food trays, hazardous waste and other materials, jobs that are currently done by orderlies, nurse assistants, nurses and lab technicians.
A virus-killing robot, the Xenex, is being used in hospitals to disinfect rooms. The robot — which has gotten a lot of attention due to the Ebola crisis — uses sensors to determine room size, a factor in how long to deliver the lethal ultraviolet rays needed to disinfect the room.
Baxter, a robot used in factories, is about the same size as an adult, has wheels and can be taught what to do by moving his arms as needed, like teaching a child to tie his shoes, says Jim Lawton, chief marketing officer of Boston-based Rethink Robotics.
Robots are also showing up in some unexpected places: In Japan, a robot is playing the lead role in Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis, and a few years ago a major Japanese retailer had a 4-foot-tall robot babysit children while their parents shopped. At a North Carolina State University library a "Bookbot" is retrieving books.
But a "Rosie" robot, the maid on the 1962-87 television show The Jetsons is not likely soon, because multiple tasks are still out of reach, experts say. University of California-Berkeley researchers have been training a humanoid robot to fold towels. They succeeded, but it took the robot an average of more than 20 minutes to fold one.
"There's no doubt we'll see lots of robots being deployed for home services. I feel like there's so much more that could be done," Christensen says. "I would love to have a robot make my bed. …The robot could do its work very slowly while you're gone all day. That would be awesome, especially if we can do this for less than $1,000 — something everybody can afford."
Cost Incentive: Robots let skilled workers do more
Food service and cleaning — where the pay is typically at or below $10 per hour — have mostly avoided technological innovation, while higher-paying jobs in factories have been replaced by robots.
"It's already feasible ... for a lot of those low-skill jobs to be automated, at least in part," says Brian Points, an economist with EMSI. "But the infrastructure and machinery required to make that happen is probably more expensive than to continue paying people that $12 per hour."
But lower tech costs, the fear of a $15 minimum wage and increased customer expectations are pushing food service companies to adopt tablets for ordering and computerized systems for kitchens and inventory — "not just to save money today, but to maintain savings over time," says Darren Tristano, a restaurant industry consultant for Technomic.
Across many industries, employers say technology often provides better efficiency and quality than human labor.
Robots at the National Institutes of Health run millions of lab tests looking for drugs to fight diseases, freeing up scientists to focus on the results. Each robot can run about 3 million tests per week. For one person to do that work, it would take seven days a week, eight hours a day for 12 years, says Chris Austin, director of the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, part of NIH.
Total orders for North American manufacturing, the primary market, not including hospitals or military. Note: 2014 number is projected.
"Human beings are not very good at mundane, repetitive tasks. They are also much slower and don't take very good notes," Austin says. "Robots keep great notes. They do things exactly, over and over again. They work 24/7. They almost never get sick."
It's also hard to get workers for such repetitive tasks, says Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation. "Companies tell us 'you can hire people ... but they don't stay.' "
The nursery and greenhouse industry has a new solution to its least-desirable job: robots that move millions of plants, each weighing roughly 20 pounds, several times during a growing season.
"We've been very dependent on low-skill, hand labor, and the availability of that labor is becoming less and less," says Florida-based nursery owner George Hackney, noting the tightening of immigration policies. "The days of working a lot of people in a low-volume industry are going away. We need to do anything we can to automate."
Hackney says the robots — developed by Harvest Automation — also have enabled the nursery to reduce the amount of water and chemicals used because moving the plants is easier.
Each robot costs $30,000, about the same as a worker for one year. "We haven't reduced our workforce, but we've been able to increase our production," Hackney says.
Jobs At Risk: The robot will see you now
Nearly any job that can be easily turned into computer code is quickly disappearing, like toll booth operators, travel agents, telephone operators and bank tellers.
Algorithms and software improvements have reduced jobs for tax preparers. Computers that scan millions of pages of legal documents have displaced paralegals. And tablet computers are taking orders and payments at restaurants, leaving wait staff to deliver food, clear dishes and answer questions.
Even one of the country's newest and highest-paying jobs — computer programmer — is in danger of being replaced by computers that can write code.
And doctors, long thought immune to being automated, now face competition, including a machine that replaces an anesthesiologist in low-risk colonoscopy procedures.
Advancements in artificial intelligence, machine learning and "big data," though, may hold the most promise.
IBM's Watson, the supercomputer that's best known for beating two Jeopardy! game show champions in 2011, is now 24 times faster and 90% smaller. And it's no longer playing games.
"What you saw on Jeopardy! was just scratching the surface," says Rob Merkel, of the IBM Watson Group.
To train Watson, a cognitive system that replicates the human brain, IBM loads immense collections of data into the computer, then teaches it how to interpret the information. Watson learns from that process and gets better over time, Merkel says.
"There is so much information within health care, you could never, ever read that much," says Merkel, who heads up IBM's health care and life sciences division. "Imagine if you had a partnership with a cognitive system that could do all that reading for you."
Starting next year, The Mayo Clinic in Minnesota will use Watson to sort through 8,000 Mayo studies and approximately 170,000 ongoing studies worldwide to match patients to clinical trials.
At Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, "Watson for Oncology" will help determine the best treatment course for a cancer patient by comparing that person's medical records to a huge knowledge base of published literature, hospital expertise and learning from patient cases.
"We believe Watson is creating a new partnership between humans and computers, something that is going to extend upon what people are capable of," Merkel says. "And that opens up unlimited opportunity."
Racing With the Machines: There's a robot for that
Humans who want to keep their jobs need to be innovative and creative, futurists say. The jobs that are at low risk of automation tend to require creative intelligence, negotiation, persuasion, perception, creativity or care.
That's why engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs, Web developers, artists, lawyers, business executives, nurses and doctors are among the safest jobs.
"It's not about learning specific skills, it's about having the cognitive abilities to adapt to technologies," says Frey, the Oxford study author.
Most economists agree that technology will continue to disrupt the workforce. However, it's unclear whether it will cause mass unemployment or whether workers will move into newly created jobs — if there are enough.
"We're going to see more and more things that look like science fiction and less and less things that look like jobs," says Andrew McAfee, who co-wrote a book with Erik Brynjolfsson calling this The Second Machine Age.
The two MIT economists envision a Utopian future where humans are freed from the "drudgery" of work, and technology allows for better health care and quality of life. A mind-set of "racing with the machines," they say.
McAfee believes technological progress is crucial for improving the economy, even if that means losing jobs.
"What if we come up with technology that does better diagnosis than human doctors. Wouldn't you want that?" McAfee says. "Would I rather protect the jobs of today's doctors or would I rather improve the health of all people tomorrow? If that's really the choice, wow, is that an easy one for me to make."
McAfee says the divergence between flat job growth and rising productivity is a sign we're already losing jobs that aren't being replaced.
David Autor, another MIT economist, says it's not time to panic, but unskilled workers, in particular, need to prepare. His research has shown that as computerization erodes higher-skill jobs, those workers compete for the low-skill service jobs and push the least educated out of the workforce altogether.
"There are many things that are going to be challenging to automate for a good long time," Autor says. "The big challenge is primarily for less-educated workers — people whose skills are much closer to being made redundant."
Lawrence Katz, a Harvard University economist, says periods of disruption have always been followed by new jobs, historically.
"It's easier to see what gets destroyed long before you see what gets created," says Lawton, of Rethink Robotics. "There's going to be a lot of jobs in 2114 that we can't even envision now."
Andrew Crapuchettes, CEO of EMSI, points to recent changes in manufacturing as a harbinger for other industries. Thousands of production jobs were either automated or shipped overseas. But automation has also created new — better paying, although fewer — jobs to operate, maintain and repair the robots and other computerized technology in U.S. factories.
Crapuchettes and others expect the same type of job replacement to occur in other industries, but it could take decades and require significant changes to workers' skills.
It's a transition that will be painful, he says. "But when you come out of it, humans tend to figure out a way to survive, and they usually end up in a better spot because of it."
Hadley Malcolm talks to data reporter MaryJo Webster about Part 3 of USA TODAY’s Where the Jobs Are series, focusing on the growth in low-skill jobs, and why many may replace humans with robots. (USA MONEY, USA TODAY)