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Technology devouring middle-class jobs, experts say.
By: Chris Clackum   |  Email: clackum@nbc.com

In the wake of the Great Recession, millions of middle-class jobs have been lost.

Some have fallen victim to downsizing and consolidation while others have disappeared through outsourcing to China and other countries.

But an increasing number of jobs - both here in the U.S. and in other developed countries - have been gobbled up by technology. Experts say millions more will be lost in the coming years as technology reaches deeper into our lives. Year after year, the software that runs computers and an array of other machines and devices has become more sophisticated and powerful and capable of doing more efficiently tasks that humans have always done.

"Microprocessors are being used everywhere ... the entire job market is affected," said Edward Leamer, a professor of economics at UCLA and director of the UCLA Anderson Forecast. "We're expecting to see unemployment rates stay persistently high."

Consider this: In the United States, half of the 7.5 million jobs lost during the Great Recession were in industries that pay middle-class wages, ranging from $38,000 to $68,000. But only 2 percent of the 3.5 million jobs gained since the recession ended in June 2009 are in mid-pay industries. Nearly 70 percent are in low-pay industries and only 29 percent are in industries that pay well. That doesn't surprise Leamer.

"Many people who have lost their jobs are not suited for the new jobs that are out there," he said. "We need to offer a different kind of education. The most important thing to have when you graduate from college is the thirst for knowledge. If you think that college is the completion ... well, that doesn't get you a job anymore."

Leamer said graduates need to possess creative problem-solving skills - the kinds of skills computers can't replicate. And virtually everyone needs to know his or her way around a computer.

"It used to be that people would list all of their computer skills like Microsoft on their resume," said Robin McCarthy, executive director of Women at Work, a Pasadena-based career and job resource center. "Now it's pretty much a given that you should know how to do that kind of stuff. But most of our clients are older and didn't grow up with computers, so they've had to kind of learn on the job."

Lisa Beck of Altadena worked for several years as a project manager at Bank of America before she was laid off in September of 2011. Technology played a part in the downsizing that hit her division, she said, and it's also playing a part in her efforts to secure another job.

"It's been tough because you have to start all over," she said. "Now everything is online. You send them your resume and off it goes into this hole. You don't even know if they got it." Some occupations are beneficiaries of the march of technology, such as software engineers and app designers for smartphones and tablet computers.

Overall, though, technology is eliminating far more jobs than it is creating, experts say. Some of the job losses have been growing for years in the form of ATM machines that do what bank employees used to do and self-serve checkout lines at grocery stores.

Education is key

Women at Work offers a variety of classes that are designed to bring people up to speed. "Our technology classes are ever popular with clients," McCarthy said. "You can learn how to do things like Microsoft Excel and Pivot Table."

The latter is a computer application that allows users to extract and organize specific information from large spreadsheets of data.

DeVry University, which operates local campuses in Sherman Oaks, Alhambra, Long Beach and Pomona, offers classes in such areas as electronics, computer technology, biomedical engineering and computer information systems. Moe Saouli, associate dean for the college of engineering and information sciences at DeVry's Pomona campus, said the ongoing march of technology is nothing new.

"It's been going on for generations now," he said. "There are emerging technologies that require new skills, while others are based on previous skills. This is basically the world we live in." Saouli said DeVry's mission is to equip students for the technological world that's out there.

"We have programs that will facilitate the path for students and meet market demands," he said. "We're trying to capture the needed skills as much as possible." The most vulnerable workers are the ones doing repetitive tasks that programmers can write software for - an accountant checking a list of numbers, an office manager filing forms, a paralegal reviewing documents for key words to help in a case.

As software becomes even more sophisticated, victims are expected to include those who juggle tasks, such as supervisors and managers - workers who thought they were protected by a college degree.

Manufacturing changes

The onslaught of automation has impacted every sector of Southern California's economy. But few industries have been as affected as much as manufacturing.

For more than three decades, technology has reduced the number of jobs in manufacturing. Robots and other machines controlled by computer programs work faster and make fewer mistakes than humans do.

"For the past few years we've been preaching to companies about lean manufacturing concepts," said Bob Machuca, a regional manager with the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. "Now we're seeing the unintended consequences of that. Companies have cut expenses, and the investments they've made are in new equipment, new software and new technology. That hasn't allowed for the kind of job growth we've had in the past."

Machuca recounted a recent conversation he had at a Southland manufacturing firm.

"The plant manager took me aside and said, 'Do you see those 500 workers? We're investing in new equipment and I'll have to cut 50 of those jobs.' It's sad, but it's business. It's a corporate decision."

Waste Management, whose subsidiaries provide for the collection, transfer, recycling and disposal of trash throughout Southern California, has embraced technology at its 12 recycling centers. The company's Downtown Diversion center in Los Angeles has a series of automated systems that sort waste by size and material.

"Our optical sorting system is a big computer that sits over top of a conveyor belt," said Mike Hammer, Waste Management's director of recycling operations. "It looks at the materials that are there and uses jets of air to blow them to the proper area. That eliminates a bunch of people having to stand there and pick out little pieces of wood."

That same kind of efficiency is being unleashed in the service economy, which employs more than two-thirds of the workforce in developed countries.

Overhaul in services

Technology is eliminating jobs in office buildings, retail outlets and other businesses that consumers deal with every day - including travel agencies.

Natalie Rich, who manages Why Not Travel, located in Chatsworth, acknowledged that some travel agencies have folded in the face of competition from Travelocity.com, Priceline.com and other online sites that book discount travel packages. But full-service agencies such as Why Not Travel offer something those business don't have, Rich said.

"The Internet is a wonderful tool for information, but it really comes down to the service we provide and our knowledge of travel throughout the world," she said. "That can make or break a trip." Rich said agencies such as hers can provide customers with more detailed information about travel destinations, and they're also attuned to pricing discounts that consumers might otherwise miss. "When you book a trip online you're really locked into that price," she said.

Technology devouring middle-class jobs, experts say.

By: Chris Clackum
Company Name: NBC
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