Cast in bronze and mounted at the Statue of Liberty is a sonnet that reads, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.” Famed American poet Emma Lazarus wrote these words only after a friend convinced her that the statue would one day stand as a beacon for immigrants coming to this country. And yet today, you find the American people divided most poignantly on the topic of immigration.
Though unemployment is at its lowest rate in half a century, the fear of losing jobs to immigrants has been a hot topic issue over the past few years. There may be some who cite the influx of immigrants — whether by legal employment status or illegal means — as a cause for concern for American workers. Some say that technology jobs that would otherwise go to American citizens are instead granted to lower-paid immigrants who are in the U.S. via H-1B or similar work visas. Others claim that America’s migrant farming or food services workforce is largely made up of immigrants when those positions could be filled by underemployed or unemployed Americans.
These can be argued until the proverbial cows come home, but regardless of the answer, a look at the pace of automation in both hardware machinery and software applications suggests that these fears might become irrelevant in the not-so-distant future.
As a proponent of automation, I do not mean to say that we should turn a fear of immigration into fear of automation — quite the contrary. Most certainly, I understand a fear of losing jobs. Every day, we set out to make our lives better. We seek to provide for our families and give our loved ones the things they need to find their own success.
Fearing a changing employment landscape, be it through immigration or through automation, might actually stand counter to those goals of success.
Perhaps I am biased. I am the son of two immigrants who hail from opposites sides of the globe. My mother, a Norwegian national, came to America decades ago and found work in the then bustling travel industry. My father, originally from Hong Kong, was the first man in his family to attend college. He later went on start his own travel agency here in the States. In many ways, I am a product of the American dream.
Through my parents’ hard work, endless life lessons and understanding of international culture, I have worked with my business partners to build our own company, which was recognized on Inc 5000 as one of the 20 fastest-growing software companies of 2017. Each of the founders has a direct connection to U.S. immigration.
I won’t touch on the topic of background checks for high-risk individuals, as I am no expert, but I understand that international roots breed international connections. Perhaps more importantly, these ties to a transnational landscape provide an international perspective that gives individuals a better ability to deal with a globalized economy.
From these two perspectives — that of the son of immigrants and that of the CEO of an automation company — I see that the future holds a great many unknowns for employment. It is difficult to imagine a world in which automation does not displace the majority of current jobs.
I see a future in which long-haul trucks driven only by autopilot carry goods across the country. There will be a time when the contents of those trucks are carefully and rapidly unloaded by robotic devices — perhaps those robot dogs from Boston Dynamics. At that point, the majority of America’s 3.5 million truck drivers, or 7.4 million in related services, may need to find new jobs.
When future programmers develop applications that can create virtually any website functionality through easy-to-use interfaces or voice commands alone, a portion of America’s 3.3 to 4.1 million software developers will also be seeking new employment.
To many, these thoughts inspire contempt or fear. To me, I see hope.
Certainly, the types of jobs we have now will change, but innovation will move faster than ever. An entrepreneur who has an idea might only need that idea to go to market. Erase the back office, the developers and the delivery people, and maybe even remove the lawyers from the equation. What you will be left with is an ultra-lean business that’s capable of testing new ideas without the sunk costs of a similar business today.
In fact, these businesses already exist in niche segments that have automation capabilities to accommodate such lean company types. They are using programmatic automation to reach scale with virtually no employees, high margins and unbridled growth, as I wrote in a previous Forbes article. Future jobs will truly lie with those willing to change.
There may be a great schism ahead — a divide between those who fear the future and those who will seize the opportunities that reveal themselves in the automated economy. Many will feel significant growing pains. Financial analysts whose jobs are replaced by 10-K reading AI that can convert the language within a publicly traded company’s filing into quantifiable expectations of performance will have to choose whether they fight the inevitable or learn to grow alongside it.
Perhaps at that point, those who feared immigrant workers will look back and laugh at the pointlessness of their arguments. They may even regret the fervor with which they persecuted people seeking a better life here in America.
What the age of automation will look like remains to truly be seen. We may only elect to use automation as a tool or choose to be crushed by its efficiency.