The coronavirus pandemic’s impact on 2020 is far-reaching and will be talked about for decades. But if a report from the Southern Regional Education Board is accurate, its long-term effect on employment trends is just getting started.

The organization originally predicted that automation — getting robots or computers to perform tasks instead of people — would replace a significant number of jobs by 2030. But the president of the education board told the Jackson Clarion Ledger recently that the response to the virus has moved the time frame up to 2025.

“We’re experiencing the fourth Industrial Revolution,” board president Stephen Pruitt told the newspaper. “Computers and robots work with us rather than for us.”

In Mississippi, this means up to 30% of jobs could be lost to automation in the next five years. The SREB report says the people most vulnerable to losing their job in this fashion are those with the least amount of education, women and minorities, and workers aged 16 to 23 and 56 to 74.

To put a number on it, up to 589,000 Mississippians are at risk of losing a job, having their work hours reduced or leaving the labor force altogether.

Industries likely to experience significant automation include food preparation and service, sales, installation and maintenance, transportation and production.

A lot of jobs fit into these categories, and the report offers broad solutions such as retraining adults for skills that will be needed in the future, along with doing a better job of preparing young people for college, job training and careers.

Whether this wrenching change arrives by 2025 or 2030 is not really important. The point is that it’s coming, and people whose jobs are at risk need to be aware of what lies ahead.

It does not take a crystal ball to see, for example, that once a fast-food restaurant chain figures out how to integrate burger-flipping robots and computer software into its workflow, people will start disappearing from its payroll — and competitors will copy its success.

But one thing to keep in mind is that the American labor force has proven itself to be remarkably adaptable to new forms of work. If you watch a movie that’s set around 1900, you’ll sometimes see a guy in the background whose job was to go around and ignite all the oil-fueled overnight street lamps. Electricity eliminated the need for this work.

Something else that’s long gone are the horse-and-buggy jobs that got eliminated upon the invention of the “horseless carriage,” known today as the automobile. And a more recent example of a job that disappeared is the nice guy at the service station who filled up your gas tank and cleaned the windshield. The self-serve convenience store wiped them away.

The point is that any Industrial Revolution is bound to create new opportunities for productive work. This has happened before, and it is sure to happen again — in ways that we may not yet realize. Workers at risk have five to 10 years to prepare for the coming changes.

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