The robots are coming

San Francisco isn’t immune to automation and AI
Cities have an important role to play in helping their human workforces adapt to the economic disruption caused by the growth in robots and artificial intelligence. Photo: Tumisu

Resilience. It’s arguably the most important attribute any city can possess. So it comes as no surprise that San Francisco has tried to ready itself to withstand climate change, unforeseen seismic activity, and unanticipated increases in social service needs. These important efforts must continue. But the city must also become more resilient to automation and artificial intelligence (AI).

The San Francisco-Hayward-Oakland area isn’t as prepared for impending workforce changes as its residents may like to believe. Folks look around the Bay and see an overwhelming amount of tech workers. A nontrivial number of residents likely think that if the area is creating the future of work, then it must be prepared for it . . . right?


A Brookings Institution report on automation and AI reveals that the Bay Area workforce of today is not fully prepped for the tasks of tomorrow. The share of tasks of Bay Area jobs that are susceptible to automation and AI is 42.8 percent. It’s true that other areas such as the Los Angeles region (45.6 percent) and Seattle (43.6 percent) face higher hurdles to readying their residents, which explains why state and national policymakers are thinking about larger, top-down strategies to prepare workers for the future. But the cities that hope to keep pace with technological changes must not wait for federal and state guidance on an issue that’s already pressing on the economic wellbeing of residents.

State-level efforts to address automation and AI are like a visit to a general practitioner — they’ll tell you if you have a problem but you will still have to visit a specialist for the best treatment. Governor Newsom, the state’s chief general practitioner, recently announced The New Future of Work Commission at the American River College. The commission is charged with pinpointing the pain — the locations and sectors most susceptible to technology’s inevitable interference with the status quo. Additionally, the commission will prescribe some basic remedies for catching these areas and specific industries up to the future of work. This treatment can only go so far.

Cities that stay apace with technological leaps have historically done two things: First, give residents the education they need to compete in the economy of the era and, second, become a hub of the companies and people on the vanguard of the relevant technological change. The Bay Area used this formula to help the area navigate the emergence of the Internet era. Stanford, UC Berkeley, and a panoply of other higher education institutions, including community colleges, created a workforce better suited than most to expertly contribute to the new economy. And, of course, a large number of the companies creating this new economy resided in the region.

What’s new about this next “new” economy is its unpredictability. Experts know that change is coming but remain uncertain about how, when, and where those changes will occur. It follows that cities that ready themselves sooner rather than later will develop more immunity to the latest strain of economic upheaval.

Sample initiatives that could be emulated and expanded in San Francisco include the SkillUp program in Cuyahoga County. Consider that the median length of unemployment spans 11.9 weeks or nearly a quarter of the year. This stretch doesn’t have to be defined by idleness and/or frustration. Programs like SkillUp aim to reduce the length of unemployment by turning time out of work into a period of professional development. SkillUp brings together displaced workers and employers in search of labor to quickly train the former in the skills required by the latter. This process results in shorter stints of unemployment and greater capacity for regional employers.

The city should also closely study the techniques of the Department of Defense’s Office of Economic Adjustment (OEA). The OEA helps communities built around military bases plan for the scheduled base closures. With guidance from the OEA, these communities create adjustment plans to diminish the size of the forecast economic drop off. San Francisco can model these techniques and apply them to the neighborhoods home to residents most likely to struggle in the next iteration of a new economy. The Brookings report specifies that cities should pay specific attention to areas that are younger and generally home to more Hispanic and Black populations.

It’s easy to look at San Francisco’s staggeringly low unemployment rate of 2.6 percent, recorded in March 2019, and assume that the city will remain ahead of any looming technological shift. Yet that low percentage fails to demonstrate the net loss of 1,100 jobs in the trade, transportation, and utilities sectors. Transportation and utilities are among the sectors forecast to face the greatest pressure from automation and AI. March’s loss are just the start of brewing disruption.

The “new” economy is already here. Just as the city’s sea wall won’t stop climate change, workforce development won’t stop technological progress. Still, the city has a responsibility to take action toward a more resilient future.

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