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Will California’s Logistics Jobs Be Automated in 25 Years?

The logistics industry currently makes up 13 percent of the jobs in the state’s Inland Empire, but many expect that rate to increase with automation and as friendly zoning and officials bring more jobs to the area.

warehouses prolifierating in the Inland Empire
A Walmart distribution center located along I-15 in Eastvale, Calif.
(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)
(TNS) — Before staring into his crystal ball to forecast how automation will impact jobs in California's Inland Empire 25 years from now, University of Redlands professor Johannes Moenius finds it helpful to explain how the technological advancements of the past 25 years indelibly impacted certain professions.

Travel agents, he says. Factory workers. Car mechanics.

Since the turn of the millennium automation has, in one way or another, forever altered these careers and plenty others that once relied solely on expertise and skilled labor, Moenius says.

And in this "Age of the Jerk," as experts call the present day, the professor believes automation is coming for more.

"Say you dropped off your kid at school," Moenius says. "You go first at a constant speed of 5 miles per hour. Then you're allowed to go 25 miles per hour, so you slowly accelerate until you go 25 and you keep your speed constant.

"Then you go on the highway, step down on the pedal and accelerate much faster," he adds. "Your acceleration is accelerating. That's where we are now.

"The speed, or the acceleration, of technology is accelerating."

So much so, Moenius continues, that experts believe more advancements in technology have occurred within the past five years than the past 50 years combined.

And, the professor says, "We're not accelerating at the same speed anymore. We're going increasingly faster."

Automated Future?

Over the next 25 years, Moenius expects some professions to be caught off guard when automation comes for them.

In a 2019 blog post on the University of Redlands website, Moenius shared that 63 percent of jobs in the Inland Empire are likely to be automatable by 2035, according to a study he and two other experts conducted into the effects automation will have on employment in various geographic communities.

While certain professionals have already learned or are inclined to learn how to use technology to enhance their work, Moenius said recently, longtime employees of a certain age will have to be retrained in a short amount of time to do the same.

Some professions — teachers, physical therapists, medical professionals, to name a few — appear to be automation-proof.

Others, however, are not so lucky.

Of particular note in the Inland Empire, Moenius says, truck drivers could be replaced in the coming years once legal hurdles are cleared to fully automate trucks.

Warehouse workers, he adds, face a similar fate.

Today, the logistics industry makes up about 13 percent of all jobs in the Inland Empire.

"That's probably not going to slow down," said Kome Ajise, executive director of the Southern California Association of Governments.

Although some of today's jobs will be lost to automation, Ajise expects the region to attract more logistics jobs, due to friendly zoning and elected officials, as well as population that understands the industry.

"Everyone's at home, ordering stuff," Ajise said. "And that is just going to continue."

Moenius is less optimistic.


As automation increases with time, Moenius predicts, so too does the possibility of companies bringing certain overseas operations back stateside.

Repatriating production would allow customers to buy products straight from manufacturers, where those goods previously were shipped into ports in Long Beach or Los Angeles, and driven to and stored inside warehouses.

If warehouses lose inventory because manufacturers begin selling their wares directly to consumers, Moenius adds, the jobs inside these distribution centers — those automation hasn't already replaced — disappear.

"We may have not yet reached peak warehouse," Moenius says, "but peak warehouse in the Inland Empire is, from my perspective, on the horizon. And those warehouses will not employ many people anymore, meaning it's all a waste in terms of land for the Inland Empire.

"We could've really preserved much more of our natural beauty."

Paul Granillo, president of the Inland Empire Economic Partnership, also acknowledges a future where businesses reshore.

But whereas Moenius sees businesses setting up shop in the middle of the country where distribution costs would be lower, Granillo sees the Inland Empire as an attractive alternative for manufacturers.

"We need to be making the argument that for companies that want to reshore, the Inland Empire is a great place to do that," Granillo said. "The two counties are tied together. If one company comes to Riverside, people are going to live in San Bernardino, so everyone benefits."

Traditional warehouse jobs aside, Cal State San Bernardino professor Daniel MacDonald believes professionals will always have a place in the logistics industry.

Who is going to write the computer scripts that make sure orders get fulfilled? Who will figure out supply chain issues?

Demand for these new types of jobs, MacDonald says, is increasing in concert with automation.

"We have to learn," he adds, "as we have in the past, because it's not like we haven't done this in the past, to work with robots, with artificial intelligence, to harness that productive potential and grow as a society and an economy."

Analyze This?

A particular career on the upswing, and one MacDonald knows intimately, is data science, or the analysis of data for actionable insight.

With technology now capable of entering data into spreadsheets for easy consumption, Fortune 500 companies and small businesses alike still require someone or some people to analyze the numbers and explain to executives why they and certain trends matter.

What data entry was as a career as recently as 10 years ago, MacDonald says, data science is now.

"As one set of operations or jobs become obsolete," MacDonald adds, "in its place we have a new demand for a new kind of job."

Aside from logistics and data science, other industries, such as health care, education and tourism, are expected to grow in the region these next two decades.

The two Inland counties are expected to retain much of their current identity, according to Ajise. Riverside County, anchored by UC Riverside, will continue to attract knowledge-based jobs, while San Bernardino County will continue to attract more blue-collar ones, he said.

One of the challenges facing the region, however, is its below-average percentage of college graduates compared to the rest of the state.

About 79 percent of residents don't have a bachelor's degree, Granillo said, making it "very difficult for our region to participate in the innovation economy.

"And the highest-paying jobs are in the innovation economy," he adds, "because you're making ideas, software."

Granillo would like to see college graduation rates increase from 21 percent to 32 percent, making it easier to diversify the types of jobs in the region.

Ajise would like to see a four-year college in the Coachella Valley in the next 25 years.

"The significance of a four-year public university can't be understated," he said.

In the meantime, the state is increasingly unfriendly to the kind of blue-collar jobs the Inland Empire is known for today.

"California's regulatory climate is making it harder and harder for us to hold onto, most especially, manufacturing jobs," Granillo said. "And manufacturing jobs are good-paying jobs.

"So then the question is, what are we left with?"

As an economics professor the last number of years, MacDonald has seen curriculum change to help college students hit new careers running.

"The people who are coming in are younger, contributing to the workforce in positive way," he says. "Because we're living in so much more a data-oriented-and-applied world, certain skills are in high demand. It could be partly about employers not wanting to spend six months on training a worker, but also, it's our job as educators, higher ed educators to make sure we're equipping our students with the skills they need to be successful right out of the gate."

Area community colleges, too, are becoming key players in training the workforce of the future.

"They're training people for the next generation of jobs," Granillo said, "which are going to be the care and feeding of automated systems, including conveyances, drones."

MacDonald agrees.

"I'm an optimist," he says. "It appears humans have failed to catch up to computer or artificial intelligence, but eventually we will learn to work with them and succeed."

A Better Future?

Moenius acknowledges his projections are gloomier than most.

"I very much hope my concerns will never matter," he says. "That will be my dream."

But, he admits, watching automation consume the workplace these next 25 years will be fascinating, if only because optimizing work will create a life that is "overall, much better from a work perspective" than present day.

The possibilities are endless.

"The promise this creates for the quality of life and quality of work is really a great promise," Moenius says. "Not everyone will like that they will have to learn until they stop working, but whoever is open to learn and has learned how to acquire knowledge themselves, for them, that is going to be a great future."

(c)2023 the San Bernardino County Sun (San Bernardino, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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