Mechanization and Immigration

One of the central arguments for increasing less-skilled immigration is that as the native-born workforce grows more educated, the demand for less-skilled workers is outstripping supply. Michael Clemens has made this argument on a number of occasions, most recently in Foreign Policy magazine. To Clemens’ great credit, he has acknowledged the potential role of technological change in shaping the future U.S. labor market:

People who acquire higher skills create less-skilled jobs that they themselves aren’t suited for. Less-skilled immigrants fill that gap. Machines may be able to take over a few of these jobs; that’s why you’re seeing more self-checkout registers in retail stores. But no machine we’ll have anytime soon can help the elderly bathe safely, clear tables at restaurants, or profitably pick cucumbers. People who do less-skilled essential jobs make skilled work in America possible, and together they make American competitiveness possible. You might never see the people who clean Google’s offices, but the company’s massive contribution to U.S. competitiveness would not exist without them.

We have discussed the limits of Clemens’ examples. The elderly share of the U.S. population is increasing, which will increase the demand for caregivers. But as we make progress in the fight against dementia, a growing number of older Americans will be in a position to meet their own bathing needs. Moreover, as technological change reduces the demand for professionals in other demands, there may well be a shift of native-born workers, including mid-skilled native-born workers, into eldercare. Clearing tables in restaurants is a labor-intensive activity, yet one can easily imagine the business model of restaurants changing in ways that reduces the demand for less-skilled labor. The picking of cucumbers has been resistant to automation in the past, offshoring has long been an option. A large share of cucumbers consumed in the U.S. are grown and picked in southern Mexico.

And recently, as Gosia Wozniacka and Terence Chea of the Associated Press report, we’ve seen a number of breakthroughs in agricultural mechanization. Wozniacka and Chea describe a “Lettuce Bot” that is capable of thinning a field of lettuce in the same time that it would take approximately 20 workers to do the same job by hand. In the past, research into agricultural mechanization had been less of a priority, as there was a large supply of less-skilled laborers. But as this supply has grown smaller, the incentives to invest in mechanization have grown commensurately stronger. Wozniacka and Chea quote a representative of the United Farm Workers of America, who suggests that machine-picked agricultural produce might prove less safe than human-picked produce. Yet there is reason to believe that machine-picked produce will, at the technology matures, prove substantially less expensive. Moreover, farmers can yield substantial benefits by reshaping their fields to accommodate machines. Right now, agricultural fields are optimized for human pickers, but “farming in single rows, raising the beds and even growing varieties with fewer clusters” can greatly facilitate machine-picking. 

Note that agribusiness firms have been among the most vocal and influential constituencies for increasing less-skilled immigration, and that the Senate immigration bill allows for 112,333 temporary work visas for the agricultural sector. The bill also includes a separate path to legalization for workers who have spent 100 days or 575 hours engaged in agricultural labor in the two years prior to enactment, and permanent residence for those who’ve worked at least 100 days a year in the previous five years or 150 days a year for three years. That is, workers who will likely find it extremely difficult to transition from agricultural work to other kinds of work as agricultural mechanization proceeds apace will be granted a fast track to permanent legal residence, and the various benefits it entails. 

Suffice it to say, agricultural mechanization isn’t the only kind of mechanization that is changing the U.S. labor market. David Rotman of MIT Technology Review draws on the work of Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee to suggest that robots, automation, and software will have a significant impact on employment levels in law, financial services, education, and medicine as well as in manufacturing, retail, and clerical work:

The contention that automation and digital technologies are partly responsible for today’s lack of jobs has obviously touched a raw nerve for many worried about their own employment. But this is only one consequence of what ­Brynjolfsson and McAfee see as a broader trend. The rapid acceleration of technological progress, they say, has greatly widened the gap between economic winners and losers—the income inequalities that many economists have worried about for decades. Digital technologies tend to favor “superstars,” they point out. For example, someone who creates a computer program to automate tax preparation might earn millions or billions of dollars while eliminating the need for countless accountants.

New technologies are “encroaching into human skills in a way that is completely unprecedented,” McAfee says, and many middle-class jobs are right in the bull’s-eye; even relatively high-skill work in education, medicine, and law is affected. “The middle seems to be going away,” he adds. “The top and bottom are clearly getting farther apart.” While technology might be only one factor, says McAfee, it has been an “underappreciated” one, and it is likely to become increasingly significant.

It is easy to imagine that while total employment levels continue to increase, the composition of the workforce will change over time. The classic model is that less-skilled employment will decline while skilled employment will increase. It is also possible, however, that skilled employment in many domains will be under pressure while less-skilled employment in eldercare and fields like it will remain highly resistant to automation. (The fact that a large share of eldercare expenditures are financed by the public sector adds an interesting wrinkle to this latter scenario.) If this is the case, one assumes that many skilled workers will shift into sectors that had traditionally been dominated by less-skilled workers, undermining the notion that there are jobs that native-born workers simply won’t undertake. In January, the Center for College Affordability and Productivity issued a report on “underemployment” among college-educated U.S. workers, which includes the following observations:

• About 48 percent of employed U.S. college graduates are in jobs that the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) suggests requires less than a four-year college education. Eleven percent of employed college graduates are in occupations requiring more than a high-school diploma but less than a bachelor’s, and 37 percent are in occupations requiring no more than a high-school diploma;

• The proportion of overeducated workers in occupations appears to have grown substantially; in 1970, fewer than one percent of taxi drivers and two percent of firefighters had college degrees, while now more than 15 percent do in both jobs;

• About five million college graduates are in jobs the BLS says require less than a high-school education.

One shouldn’t discount the possibility that a dramatic increase in less-skilled immigration would create employment opportunities for skilled workers. But in light of technological change, it also seems premature to dismiss the possibility that mechanization will reduce employment levels in some domains that have traditionally been limited to less-skilled workers (like the picking of produce) while skilled workers will grow increasingly willing to work in others, like eldercare and food preparation.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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