As millions of Americans lose their jobs as a result of COVID-19, experts predict some of those jobs will not come back as companies use the virus as an opportunity to expand automation across manufacturing and other sectors.

Discussion about robots entering the workforce is nothing new. It reached the 2020 presidential campaign as former candidate Andrew Yang made automation a cornerstone of his platform, and it has gained traction among think tanks in recent years. A new report from the Brookings Institution, for instance, argues that the virus will cause a sudden, much more disruptive spike in automation than anything we’ve previously seen — with up to 36 million jobs flagged as “highly susceptible” to automaton.

The authors argue that, during this time when people are out of work, businesses will seize an opportunity to cut costs and ensure long-term viability by replacing humans with robots and other technology.

“(A)utomation happens in bursts, concentrated especially in bad times such as in the wake of economic shocks, when humans become relatively more expensive as firms’ revenues rapidly decline,” Brookings scholars Mark Muro, Robert Maxim, and Jacob Welton write in the report. “At these moments, employers shed less-skilled workers and replace them with technology and higher-skilled workers, which increases labor productivity as a recession tapers off.”

Among the jobs most vulnerable to automation right now are production, transportation, and food service. Expect companies like Amazon to continue expanding its use of robots in warehouses and devote more resources to automated delivery programs that are currently being piloted.

On the food service side, restaurants that have turned into delivery and take-out operations as a result of COVID-19 will look for ways to automate repetitive food production tasks and eliminate waitstaff in favor of apps like Grubhub and UberEats. 

All of these changes will not only help the companies save money, but they can also be useful in stopping the spread of COVID-19 by reducing the number of workers in warehouse and production facilities. However, those advantages come at a real-life cost as workers lose their jobs and are not able to find employment in other areas.

The Brookings report notes that the jobs most likely to be automated are predominantly held by young workers, as well as Hispanic and Latino workers. The coming surge in automation could also cause more economic damage in “rust belt” states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana that have already experienced high unemployment as factories closed.

However, the news is not all bleak for America’s workers. As with any major societal change, Brookings argues that COVID-19 will bring about the need for jobs and industries that we could not have anticipated before the virus hit. This will result in new jobs, some of which will be low-skill and potentially available to workers who are casualties of automation.

“ … the downturn could induce firms in food service, retail, and administrative work to restructure their operations toward greater use of technology and higher-skilled workers. For America’s beleaguered lower-skill workers, these changes will complicate the return to normalcy,” the report states. 

The bottom line, the authors write, is that workers need to be flexible as the labor market continues to change and be prepared to deal with a rapidly-changing job market for years to come.


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