August 6, 2014

Reshaping the workplace: Tech-related jobs that didn’t exist (officially, at least) 15 years ago

Cable Giant Comcast To Acquire Time Warner Cable
A Comcast worker stands among the cables and routers at the company’s distribution center in Pompano Beach, Fla., from which regional video, high speed data and voice are piped out to customers. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Technological innovation has been changing the jobs people do, and the way they do them, at least since the first spinning jennies went into service in England’s textile industry in the 1760s. And for about as long, people have sought to forecast what new technologies might mean for the world of work — predictions that tend to be either utopian (2-hour workdays!) or dystopian (massive unemployment).

A new Pew Research Center report joins that tradition, gathering the opinions of nearly 1,900 experts on how advances in robotics and artificial intelligence will affect employment in the future. And again, opinions were divided, with about half saying robots and digital agents would leave significant numbers of workers — white and blue collar — idle by 2025, and the other half saying those technologies would lead to more new jobs than they displace. (Nor is this issue confined to the U.S.: The Belgian think tank Bruegel recently estimated how many current jobs in the 28 EU countries were vulnerable to computerization; the rates ranged from 47% in Sweden and the U.K. to 62% in Romania.) 

Much as we try, no one can see into the future. But we can look to the recent past to get a sense for how technological change already has reshaped the U.S. workforce — creating new job categories while others fade away.

These changes can be tracked using data from the Occupational Employment Statistics program, a federal-state project that regularly surveys business establishments to generate employment and wage estimates for some 800 different occupations. The OES program periodically revises its occupational classification scheme — adding some occupations, dropping some and changing the definitions of others. While that can make year-over-year comparisons tricky, the changes themselves can illustrate emerging and declining job categories.

We compared the 2013 occupations list with the one for 1999, the earliest with a similar structure. While most of the 800 or so jobs were unchanged, there were some notable differences showing how new technologies already are affecting employment:

  • In 2013, an estimated 165,100 Americans worked as computer network support specialists, 141,270 as computer network architects, and 78,020 as information security analysts. None of those occupations existed on their own in 1999, though some workers in those fields likely were included in broader job classifications such as “computer programmers” or “network systems and data communications analysts.” But listing them separately speaks to the importance of networked computing in today’s economy.
  • Last year there were an estimated 112,820 web developers, another job classification that didn’t exist in 1999 (despite the dot-com mania that was cresting that year). Indeed, “web developer” wasn’t reported as part of the OES classification system until 2012 — an indication that the data often lag the evolution of the actual economy.
  • Another new job: “logistician,” or someone responsible for analyzing and coordinating a business’ logistics. Powerful distributed computing and communications technologies have made far-flung supply chains, global distribution networks and “just-in-time” manufacturing (in which products are made to match orders as they come in, rather than being made in advance and held in inventory) not just possible but common. Now, an estimated 120,340 Americans are counted as working in this field, more than twice as many as when it was added in 2004.
  • The rise of mobile communications is reflected in the category of workers who install, test and repair the equipment that makes the networks work. In 1999, when only about half of American adults owned a cellphone (and smartphones had just barely hit the market), those workers were called “radio mechanics,” because they mostly worked on radio-transmission equipment. In 2010 they were renamed “radio, cellular, and tower equipment installers and repairers,” and last year there were an estimated 14,090 of them — more than triple the number of “radio mechanics” in 1999.
  • Telecommunications isn’t the only field where new technologies are creating new jobs. The 2013 OES survey reflects the growing importance of renewable energy in its estimates of 4,130 solar photovoltaic installers and 3,290 wind turbine service technicians. Neither job classification existed in 1999.

Next: Which jobs are most vulnerable to technological replacement?

Topics: Work and Employment, Emerging Technology Impacts

  1. Photo of Drew DeSilver

    is a senior writer at Pew Research Center.


  1. Stephen2 years ago

    Some of this just doesn’t stack up. Telecommunications for the 30 years I have been involved has done nothing but shed jobs. Radio mechanics or ‘Riggers’ as we call them are the labour intensive face of the job, but all the back-end engineering and operations has been largely off-shored replaced or downsized. Its a fact that the electromechanical exchanges that were present until the 80’s in most developed countries did not need anywhere near the number of technicians to keep them running so they were displaced with upgrade to electronic exchanges which were large computers. All the software configuration of systems, such as routers, multiplexers and radio transmission systems has been mostly off-shored to India, equipment manufacturers have gone to China. I was with a manufacturer of telecommunications equipment for 6 years and for 5 of them all the company did was off-shore and downsize.

    In Telco new technology roll-outs, these build-outs are project based in waves that may last 2 years and stay in service for 6 years or more. 1st wave – TDMA roll-out, was low tech in comparison today but intensive on expertise but once completed people were let go, 2nd wave GSM – hire then fire as the technology was installed, 3G hire install and fire, LTE 4G hire and fire. But with each successive wave has brought an influx of overseas workers to met immediate project demand for time senstive network roll-out, since expertise was shed previously as those workers had mostly been dumped so there was a temporary shortage, but once complete these newer workers were also dumped. I know Chinese nationals now in Australia brought out in the 3G roll-out wave now out of work for months and one I know now hired as a site auditor, highly skilled RNC specialists now just doing check sheets as a site auditor. The reason Radio mechanics are more numerous is that cell sites have increased in number, but the high level planning and operations as a service is being done often by the manufacturer or telco which has overseas operations with offices in India or China where cheaper labour and closer to manufacturing resources exist. I can also say the skill level I was trained to is now far more than is required to do the job. Its a ‘chuck and replace’ world. We used to have to design, modify, maintain, repair equipment, now we drive to a site remove the broken card and replace it, little thought power and skill required. Often the diagnosis is done far away in an operations centre, the hands and feet only needed to assist in the local replacement of faulty parts. Riggers or mechanics are now doing the jobs of several specialists as the level of engineering knowledge needed has been significantly reduced by condensed electronics and software and ‘remote access’ which has had a huge impact. Remote access to equipment through a data link has meant someone far away can diagnose the issue without going to site – this is what economists talk about by increased ‘productivity’ as a grass roots level. So even if there are more jobs, the skills needed are of a much lower level closer to the customer, of the labour intensive kind and a lower pay scale. In the past the knowledge base was far more evenly distributed, now as integration leaps into a nanometer scale, and the equipment software driven the knowledge is concentrated in a few design houses, so a few people need to be highly skilled the majority can be trained at a much lower level.

  2. Gerald Huff3 years ago

    What’s more important than the existence of new named jobs is how many people they employ. Your examples add up to about 650,000 jobs, which sounds like a big number except in the context of 132,000,000 workers in the U.S. in 2013, it’s about 0.5%

    In addition, most of these technical jobs are the ones that are made increasingly productive by technology itself, so even as demand for their output increases dramatically, with each new generation of technology you don’t see huge increases in employment.

  3. Arkansas Traveler3 years ago

    A great feel good article Mr. DeSilver. One would think there is no problems with present or future employment for the general public after all. However, as a realist, I must respectfully disagree. In reality it portends a depressing future for the common worker.

    The transition period from labor intensive and basic mechanical “hands on” jobs, to robotics and computerized everything, will be long and costly for today’s blue collar workers. As for re-training people to work with electronics and high-tech gizmos, millions simply (and sadly) do not have the capacity to be educated to the level necessary to understand the science, methods, or devices.

    On a positive note, America will have the largest group of college educated restaurant and department store workers in the world..

  4. eve3 years ago

    It’s not just the numbers of jobs that’s important. It’s the kinds of jobs lost or created. When I was a child, people looked forward to a world in which the use of machines would create leisure time for people in all walks of life to enrich their own lives and the lives of others. Instead, we have seen a dramatic separation of classes as wealth accumulates in the hands of a very few. We have seen the disappearance of the middle class and increasing poverty. Those who have jobs often work with machines in isolation with a greater goal of “efficiency,” rather than to promote social or emotional growth. Is that “progress?”