One of my favorite parts of showing a visitor around the Greater Phoenix area is their reaction to seeing a self-driving car for the first time. What looks like a prop from a 1990s cyber-punk movie is instead the future of passenger vehicles, now such a fixture of the East Valley that residents won’t bat an eye as one drives by them.
With Waymo expanding its self-driving taxi service in Maricopa County, it’s only a matter of time before automated transportation becomes a regular feature of our society.
However, this expansion carries risks. A recent report released by the Grand Canyon Institute finds that 130,000 of Arizona’s 242,000 transportation sector jobs, or 54 percent, are at a high risk of automation, meaning that greater than 70 percent of the tasks for those jobs have the potential to be automated. Very few of these workers have a college education; 85 percent of workers in high-risk jobs have no college degree.
What does this mean? Will we wake up one day and learn about mass layoffs in the news? Probably not. Rather, the jobs that pay the most and are the easiest to automate will be less and less common as companies invest in automated technologies to save money.
This is likely the case with tractor-trailer truck drivers. Teaching a computer how to drive on an interstate highway is much easier than teaching it how to navigate through a city. These truckers, 86 percent of whom have no college degree, earn a median income of $47,000. As self-driving trucks become more available, companies will opt to save money by investing in automated technology rather than paying drivers. Drivers who are displaced because of this will have to find jobs elsewhere, made more difficult by their lack of a college degree. More truck drivers looking for work will place downward pressure on other transportation jobs, resulting in lower pay and fewer hours.
The good news about automation becoming more prominent is that it will lead to the formation of new companies and the creation of new jobs. Thousands of people will be needed to design, build, test, and evaluate self-driving technologies. It’s possible to transform the economic hardship faced by those in high-risk jobs into opportunities for upward mobility. This can be done by investing in new career pathways, which can provide those in high-risk jobs with the training and education they need to move into the high-skill, low-risk jobs created by automation.
One such pathway exists in Southern Arizona. Pima County Community College District (PCCCD) formed a partnership with autonomous trucking company TuSimple. PCCCD developed a 15-credit “Autonomous Vehicle Driver and Operations Specialist” certificate program aimed at current truck drivers. Upon completion of this program, drivers are eligible for many automation-related jobs at TuSimple.
To foster the creation of such pathways, the state legislature must make meaningful investments in its workforce development system. Community colleges in Arizona are significantly underfunded. In FY21, the legislature only appropriated $2 million of the required $10.6 million to MCCCD and PCCCD based on the STEM and Workforce Programs State Aid formula; it does not currently fund the Operating State Aid formula for these districts.
Should the state fail to act, the result will be economic hardship for tens of thousands of transportation workers. Coordinated strategy and investment would benefit not just those in high-risk jobs but the economy as a whole. Arizona has the opportunity to cement its position as a leader in the autonomous-vehicle sector, but this requires an education system capable of producing workers with the skills needed to succeed in the jobs that this industry will generate.
Max Goshert is the associate director of the Grand Canyon Institute.