Analysis: Millions need more education, training as COVID-19 tilts industries toward automation faster than expected

News Alan Richard SREB News Release

ATLANTA — About 18 million workers in the South originally projected to become unemployable by 2030 now could face that reality by 2025 as the COVID-19 crisis speeds up employers’ reliance on automation, a new Southern Regional Education Board analysis shows.
 
“This dangerous trend was already on the horizon, but COVID-19 makes it the next exit off the highway,” SREB President Stephen L. Pruitt said.

Employers’ increasing shift toward automation and the ongoing economic impact of the coronavirus create a dual threat to the economic future of the South and nation, the analysis shows. (See SREB’s new report and 16 updated state-workforce data profiles.)

The pandemic creates enormous challenges, but the report explains it’s also a time when states can update education, bolster a resilient workforce, and develop policies that support healthy families and thriving economies.

“By working together, leaders have an unprecedented opportunity to work with educators and employers to make improving our education and career-training systems our highest priority,” Pruitt said. “If we do not rise to the challenge, the fallout could be catastrophic.”

Who’s impacted the most: Adults with the lowest levels of education are the most vulnerable to changes from automation. About 64% of active workers in the 16 SREB states had a high school diploma or less in 2019, and these workers form the backbone of the workforce in many states, the report shows.

More than half of the nation’s workers out of work at the height of COVID-19 unemployment in May had little or no chance to return to their same jobs, according to the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute. SREB’s analysis of that data shows that about 5.5 million workers in the 16 SREB states face this situation.

Automation will make the greatest impact in the SREB region’s largest job sectors. In all 16 SREB states, the food preparation, sales, and office and administrative sectors are among the five largest. Others include transportation (among the top five in 14 states), production (in 11 states), healthcare (four states) and business operations (one state).

SREB estimates that 42% or more of work activities in food, transportation, education, and office and administrative occupations across the region could be automated by 2025. While automation will likely transform more jobs than it eliminates, many thousands of workers could lose their jobs as technology advances.

“States must be swift and creative to meet the needs of an unprepared workforce. Leaders’ decisions in the coming weeks and months could help to support or hinder progress for years to come,” said Meagan Crowe, a policy analyst at SREB and lead author of the report.

Possible solutions: Over the past two years, SREB has convened state leaders and educators to provide resources and identify solutions to the workforce-education gap, including:

  • Retraining and upskilling adults: See SREB’s recent webinar series for state workforce and education leaders and policymakers on how states are making progress.
  • Preparing younger students better for college and careers: See SREB’s state-by-state progress reports on long-term education trends.
  • Bringing education and employers closer together: See SREB’s recent report on how these partnerships are critical to expanding career pathways and work-based learning for students.

Find these and other resources at SREB.org/Workforce. For more information and to reach our experts, contact SREB Communications. 

Media Contact: Alan Richard, (404) 879-5528 or cell (202) 641-1300

A nonprofit, nonpartisan interstate compact, SREB was created in 1948 by Southern governors and legislators who recognized the link between education and economic vitality. SREB states are Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia. More at SREB.org.