Trump, Biden and the rise of the robots: what next for the American worker?

Under the Republican Trump administration robot sales to manufacturers dipped while his Democratic challenger has a $300bn R&D plan for cutting-edge technology should he win the White House

READING, PENNSYLVANIA - OCTOBER 31: Supporters of President Donald Trump listen to him speak at a rally on October 31, 2020 in Reading, Pennsylvania. Donald Trump is crossing the crucial state of Pennsylvania in the last few days of campaigning before Americans goes to the polls on November 3rd to vote. Trump is currently trailing his opponent Joe Biden in most national polls.   Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP
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The pandemic has accelerated automation in the workplace, changing the stakes for millions of American workers ahead of Election Day in the US on Tuesday. While both President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger, the former Vice President Joe Biden, acknowledge the growing importance of artificial intelligence to the economy, their paths diverge in terms of levels of investment in automation and approaches to up-skilling workers.

"Seriously, this election will be a referendum on the future course of the country, including its employment profile, both insofar as the presidency and the Senate [results] turn out," Jonathan Grudin, a human-computer interaction researcher and author who works at Microsoft, told The National.

Over the next few decades, a quarter of US employment is at risk of being automated - especially administrative jobs and those in food services and transportation, according to a massive 2018 study by the Brookings Institution, a Washington, DC think tank. The biggest challenge of such a disruption won't necessarily be mass unemployment, but shifting displaced workers to new, more durable jobs.

The pandemic, too, has put the American workforce in a state of flux, with society’s most vulnerable feeling the shifts most acutely.

“The mix of jobs that emerge from this crisis is likely different than those that were lost,” according to a September report from McKinsey. “People with the lowest incomes and educational attainment have been disproportionately affected.”

In 2016, President Trump swung to victory in part on votes from American workers whose livelihoods were being threatened by rising automation.

Oxford University researchers concluded that three battleground states - Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania - would have gone “in favour of Hillary Clinton if robot adoption had been 2 per cent lower over the investigated period, leaving the Democrats with a majority in the Electoral College”.

And indeed, under the Republican Trump administration, US companies installed fewer robots in 2019 than they did the year before - the first decline since 2015. But it was a curtailment of manufacturing - fueled by trade wars and weaker demand - rather than workers’ protections, that dampened appetite for the machines, Reuters reported at the time.

In line with his push to localise manufacturing and bring jobs home, President Trump has engaged directly with the private sector to develop its own training or apprenticeship programmes that will help displaced workers amid automation.

Dubbed “Pledge to America’s Workers”, companies commit to training a given number of employees, but the effort has faced a backlash - particularly from Democratic lawmakers like Ohio senator Sherrod Brown - for a lack of funding.

While President Trump has rarely, if ever, tweeted about automation, the administration’s 2019 Economic Report of the President, an annual review of an administration’s economic progress, addressed automation and AI directly.

The president’s council of economic advisors summarised its concerns: "While advancements in AI could create more opportunities for workers with advanced education or specialised skills, workers without these skills could see shrinking opportunities.”

Vice President Biden’s own plans to address a skills gap and a changing employment landscape involve pouring money into community colleges and working with trade unions to “bring forward a new generation of registered apprenticeships”, according to the campaign’s website.

Under a Biden administration, community college would be free for families earning less than $125,000 a year and it would be easier for workers to unionise.

Mr Biden has also called for a $300 billion investment in research and development into “breakthrough technologies” like electric vehicles, 5G and AI “to unleash high-quality job creation in high-value manufacturing and technology”.

The R&D fund would connect research universities — including historically black colleges and other minority-serving institutions — and employers, unions and governments.

"These historic investments will connect workers and manufacturers of all sizes to the know-how and technologies needed to compete and win," according to the campaign.