Written by Peter Kennedy, Director, for The Delaware Business Times

When Danny Noonan bemoaned his prospects for affording college to Judge Smails, the classic response was “Well, the world needs ditch diggers too.”

That was Caddyshack in 1980; if a 2013 study on how vulnerable jobs are to being mechanized or computerized out of existence is any guide for the present, the world may not need ditch diggers for very much longer.  The study (“The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation?” by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne dated September 17, 2013) looked at 702 occupational categories with some interesting findings.

So Landscaping Workers (the closest to ditch diggers in the survey) ranked at 623 of 702 with a 95% probability of being mechanized at some point. As we have all most likely observed in the last few years, human telemarketers are on the way out – they are dead last in the 2013 study with a 99% plus probability of replacement.  At least we don’t have to feel as guilty hanging up on the computer.  We Accountants like to make jokes about Actuaries (personal favorite: “Actuaries are like Accountants without the sense of humor”), but in this study, Actuaries have the last laugh since they are ranked 209 with only a 21% chance of being automated while Accounting Clerks are at 671 and 98%.

If you clean a lot of plates in Memphis (Dishwashers #424 / 77%), you are only moderately better off than if you pump a lot of ‘tane (gas) down in New Orleans (Automotive Service Attendant #467 / 83%), but you’ll never see the good side of this study, ’till you hitch a ride on a riverboat queen (Captain / Mate / Pilot of Water Vessels #230 / 27%).

Historians have a relatively low 44% probability, but if Napolean was correct and history is written by the winners, what will happen if all human historians are displaced by computers?

Since before the dawn of the industrial revolution, jobs have been targeted for mechanization.  What’s changed relatively recently is the ability of computers to “learn” and make decisions. Given the expanding capabilities of automation, many more complex tasks that were previously done by humans are targets to be taken over by computerized machines.   Ross Perot’s giant sucking sound has been replaced by the whirr of a computer.

Tasks such as driving a car, not long ago considered complex beyond the reach of automation, are now becoming fair game.  Now I’m no modern-day John Henry, but I’ll never buy a car that drives itself. I would never trust a computer to direct a car through my commute up I-95 from Newark to Wilmington each morning.  Many tech companies are racing toward a solution to this, betting that I’m in the fading, tech-challenged minority.

All told, the study estimated that “about 47% of total US employment is at risk”.  Additionally, the study observed that “wages….exhibit a strong negative relationship with an occupation’s probability of computerisation”.  My translation on this is that the higher the chances of being replaced by a machine, the lower the pay is likely to be.

So, where will the jobs of tomorrow be?  What are the characteristics of jobs that are less vulnerable to  the onslaught of technology?  Well, according to the study, the following are characteristics of jobs that will be most resistant to the rising tide of automation: “fine arts”, “originality”, “negotiation”, “persuasion”, “social perceptiveness” and “assisting and caring for others”.  A review of the occupations themselves shows: School Teachers, Mental Health Social Workers, Healthcare Social Workers, Mental Health Counselors, Education Administrators and Instructional Coordinators are all in the top 25 with less than a 0.5% probability of being replaced.  A little further down are RNs, Conservation Scientists, Family Therapists, Music Directors, Fundraising Managers and Rehabilitation Counselors all in the top 80 with less than 2% probability.

Many nonprofit-focused careers appear to be in it for the long haul.

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