Imagine your next paycheck being only 2/3 of what it was last time. With many Americans living paycheck-to-paycheck, a decrease in wages this significant would cause struggle for almost any household. For the state of Tennessee overall, this may become reality as automation and the new job market could displace over a million workers and cut 1/3 of wages state-wide.
As a nation, we’ve known for a while that as technology becomes more advanced, our jobs will change. But, what does that mean for Tennessee and Hamilton County? In short, we’re somewhere in the middle when it comes to job vulnerability – but, there’s cause for concern.
According to a report by the Tennessee Department of Economic & Community Development, 1.4 million Tennessee jobs have a high probability of automation – meaning 50% of Tennessee’s workforce (as of 2016) might be out of work in the future. Generally, low wage jobs are at the highest risk. In Tennessee, that means food preparation and service, production and transportation/material moving have the highest likelihood of being automated.
On a local level, 41.9% of Hamilton County jobs are at-risk of reduction due to automation. Specifically, sales, office support and (again) food preparation and service are the top three industries at risk. According to the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, the top industries in Chattanooga are government (14%), manufacturing (13%) and education and health services (13%). In isolation, that’s only moderately concerning. However, Dr. Eileen Rehberg, director of Data & Analysis at United Way of Greater Chattanooga, says the future of these industries might put additional strain on an already vulnerable population.
“Given that these industries typically pay lower wages, families relying on that income are already struggling to meet basic needs,” she said. “We know that in areas where there are higher requests for social services, we see a higher population of people who work in these vulnerable industries. These communities are also subject to other issues like low birth weights and lack of access to healthy food. It’s not likely a coincidence that all these issues affect the same groups more than others.”
The median income in Chattanooga in 2017 was $41,278. Also in 2017, the local 2-1-1 referral line responded to 17,160 needs for food, utility assistance and rent assistance. Clearly, there’s a substantial amount of households in Chattanooga whose wages aren’t keeping up with the cost of basic needs.
So, what do we do to protect ourselves from loss of work and empower tomorrow’s workforce to gain reliable employment? United Way of Greater Chattanooga says education, health and stability are where to begin.
“We believe in a cradle to career approach,” said Lakweshia Ewing, vice president of Impact at United Way of Greater Chattanooga. “We strive to see local babies born healthy, with access to quality early childcare and education up through post-secondary pathways. Of course, without making sure individuals are physically, mentally and spiritually healthy, have their basic needs met and are connected to communities of support, none of the work we do around education would matter. None of these issues exist in a silo, so we believe in a multi-faceted approach to stability.”