Capitol Hill Considers Labor Market Implications of Autonomous Vehicles

There was standing room only in what is believed to be the first ever Capitol Hill forum examining the impact of autonomous vehicle technology on U.S. workers. Hosted by Congressman Robert “Bobby” Scott (D-VA), the ranking member on the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce, on March 16 the forum featured data from the recently released report, Stick Shift: Autonomous Vehicles, Driving Jobs, and the Future of Work.

Participants discussed a range of policy responses that could be helpful to the more than four million professional drivers whom the report projected could be displaced by autonomous vehicles. Everyone agreed that the wrong policy or no policy response would be disastrous for workers. A strict focus on consumer convenience and safety without appropriate attention to the needs of displaced workers was also deemed insufficient.

Dr. Rockeymoore, President and CEO of the Center for Global Policy Solutions argued that policymakers need to give more attention to strengthening the social safety net so that workers can make a better transition to other work in the event that they lose their job to automation. In addition to strengthening traditional safety net programs like Medicaid and Unemployment Insurance, she argued one potential solution could lie in establishing a progressive basic income administered through the Social Security program.

Other panelists disagreed with this assessment. “Universal basic income is not the solution. A social insurance program is not a replacement for a middle class job,” said, Edward Wyntkind, President of the Transportation Trade Department at the AFL-CIO. “The solution is to create more jobs that people can go into and give them collective bargaining so that their wages are better. While the right to bargain for good wages and benefits doesn’t offset automation job losses, it does give more working people a chance to fight for better jobs, wages, and training.”

Other participants focused on the potential that new technologies could provide for historically marginalized populations groups. “Innovation has always equaled job loss and job gain,” said Robert Marlow, Vice President for Workforce Development at the National Urban League. “The questions are: How do we prepare today not only to meet the needs of those who will be displaced tomorrow but to ensure that those who were never placed in the first instance, have an opportunity to play a meaningful part in the economy of tomorrow?”

“African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans have never been on the front end of training for opportunities that are going to be here today and tomorrow,” Marlow continued. “Through [the Centers of Excellence] we now have a way to know what those opportunities are and to train for them.”

The issue of governmental jurisdiction and leadership was raised repeatedly throughout the forum. “Whose job is it to prepare workers for what is coming? Whose job is it to manage the changes that are going to come with automation or other rapid shifts in industry?” asked Portia Wu, former Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of Labor Employment and Training Administration under President Obama. “The lack of strong worker representation means that its every person for him or herself. If workers and industries don’t come together we’re not going to have a solution.”

Despite these concerns, Congress will have a crucial role in ensuring safety and protecting workers. “Right now there is precedent for what will need to be done regarding autonomous technology doesn’t come at the expense of our drivers safety,” said Samuel Loesche, Transportation Policy Specialist at the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. “There needs to be a federal minimum standard that outlines basic rules and protections that come along with any new automation technology.”

It was noted that a lot of federal activity is taking place despite the lack of rules and regulations guiding self-driving vehicles at the moment. “There’s a lobbying campaign right now to spend a massive amount of federal money to help propel this technology forward,” said Wyntkind. “Taxpayers are being asked to foot the bill [through the Centers of Excellence] for something that is going to destroy many of their jobs. If the tech titans have all that money stashed away, maybe they should pay for it.”

Despite the possible negative impact on jobs, there was general recognition that automation can bring positive benefits such as increased convenience, effectiveness and efficiency, safety and ecology in terms of impact on the environment.

The argument was also made that automation could result in more, not fewer, jobs in the future. “It’s not generally true that automation reduces the overall number of jobs in the economy,” argued Heidi Shierholtz, Senior Economist and Director of Policy at the Economic Policy Institute. “Automation is happening but it has always happened. Other jobs created will offset jobs lost to automation.”

This argument was met with some skepticism by several panelists who warned that that this time might be different. “We may be looking at a new era of innovation that is more efficient than it has ever been,” countered Rockeymoore. “The sophistication of these technologies being developed and the pace at which they could take human jobs may be faster than the pace that we could actually create new jobs or retrain people for other jobs.”

There was general agreement that updates to the social safety net would be important in an era of automation. “We need to boost a good jobs agenda with high wages and benefits that allows displaced workers to transition successfully,” said Shierholz.

Policies such as creating national and regional economic strategies, increasing the minimum wage, establishing paid sick leave, boosting unionization, creating a guaranteed jobs program, and pursuing full employment policies that result in a tighter labor market with higher wages were presented as credible alternatives.

Despite its importance, it was acknowledged that big obstacles remain to retraining workers. Rockeymoore argued that Trade Adjustment Assistance, the primary policy approach for dealing with job loss due to globalization, was a failure and that there remain significant obstacles for our K-12 education system to prepare new workers for jobs of the future.

“The TAA model was in some cases moderately successful,” Wu countered. “We have super efficient technology on the corporate side, we need to become more efficient on the job training side as well.”

“We still rely on a higher education system that takes years to complete training in order to get a good job and on programs that don’t have clearly reported outcomes,” she continued. “People don’t know what they are getting for their money in terms of job outcomes or placement. Reauthorizing the Job Opportunity Act advanced this goal, but more needs to be done.”

You can watch the video of the entire Capitol Hill Forum here.