Economy

Large companies such as Ford, GE Appliances and UPS employ thousands of workers in the Louisville area; in some cases, these people work side-by-side increasingly sophisticated machines. Over time, those machines will be able to do more tasks, which leads some to worry that they could eventually replace workers.

That concern may be warranted in Louisville, which is among the major metropolitan areas most at risk of a significant portion of its work becoming automated in the future. That’s according to a recent report by the Brookings Institution, a centrist public policy think tank based in Washington, D.C. In the report’s ranking of states, Kentucky has the second-highest automation potential in the nation — trailing neighboring Indiana.

The Brookings report found that 47.9 percent of work in Louisville could be automated, making it eighth among the country’s top 100 metro areas. The projected rate for Kentucky is a bit higher, at 48.4 percent.

The prospect is not necessarily that machines will replace human workers outright, said Mark Muro, one of the report’s authors. Rather, machines may take on enough tasks in settings such as factories that fewer people will be needed to do the remaining work.

How fast the transition to smarter and more capable robots takes place will determine its effect on the job market. Muro said it’s not yet known how quick that will be, but that he expects the next recession to push employers toward more automation.

“[Adoption is] going to be gradual, until it goes fast,” he said. “There will be abrupt accelerations whenever the economy turns down.”

Policies such as investing in skill development and certifications, incentivizing hiring and providing income support to low-wage workers are among the authors’ suggestions for smoothing the transition to a more automated economy. Muro said the responsibility lies with both private employers and the government.

Muro and his co-authors wrote that nearly all industries will be affected by automation and artificial intelligence in the future. But production, food service and transportation are at highest risk for replacement. That’s because much of that work is rote, involving predictable repeated tasks. More creative work — from high-paid technical roles to low-paid domestic service work — will be less affected, they predicted.

Jobs that require bachelor’s degrees have less than half the automation potential of those that need less education, the report said. About 29 percent of Louisvillians have at least a Bachelor’s degree, while about 23 percent of Kentuckians have that level of education, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“We see significantly less exposure to automation and job displacement for those who do have a bachelor’s degree, so that’s a reassuring point,” Muro said.

Muro said automation doesn’t have to be a bad thing. In the report, he and his co-authors referred to automation potential, not risk. But not preparing for the transition could be a mistake, he said.

“Automation and artificial intelligence are a major feature of the next 10 years, so everyone needs to start preparing,” Muro said. “No one is completely prepared and the only error would be to not be preparing so it’s time to start thinking about it.”

Compared to Louisville’s nearly 48 percent, here’s how its peer cities stack up in terms of automation potential, according to the report:

  • Birmingham, AL: 46.3 percent
  • Charlotte, NC: 45.7 percent
  • Cincinnati, OH: 46.8 percent
  • Columbus, OH: 44.7 percent
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 48.0 percent
  • Greensboro, NC: 48.5 percent
  • Greenville, SC: 47.2 percent
  • Indianapolis, IN: 45.9 percent
  • Kansas City, MO: 45.2 percent
  • Knoxville, TN: 46.8 percent
  • Memphis, TN: 46.3 percent
  • Nashville, TN: 46.5 percent
  • Oklahoma City, OK: 45.8 percent
  • Omaha, NE: 46.1 percent
  • Pittsburgh, PA: 45.9 percent
  • St. Louis, MO: 45.7 percent
  • Tulsa, OK: 47.3 percent
Amina Elahi is WFPL's City Reporter.