Peter Bluestone, Georgia State University

ATLANTA – A new study by Georgia State University economists shows a strong correlation between Americans unemployed due to  coronavirus and those likely to be displaced by automation after the pandemic is over.

About 75% of industries at risk from COVID-19 closely match those with high potential for automation due to artificial intelligence (AI) and advanced computer technologies (ACT), according to a report released Wednesday by researchers and faculty at Georgia State’s Fiscal Research Center and Andrew Young School of Policy Studies.

The study also found about 50% of jobs in Georgia are at risk from AI and ACT. The vast majority of those jobs are among relatively low-paid occupations characterized by routine tasks that don’t require complex decision-making.

“The COVID-19 public health crisis is exacerbating AI’s structural changes to employment and occupation by increasing the speed of the transition to automation as a result of social distancing measures and concerns regarding the virus’ spread,” said Peter Bluestone, a senior research associate with the school’s Center for State and Local Finance, which published the study. “Education, business, medicine and other industries are finding creative ways to use digital technologies.”

The most vulnerable industries from coronavirus and the onward march of advanced technologies are accommodation and food services, arts and entertainment, wholesale and retail trade and construction, according to the study. Dominated by occupations paying relatively low wages and requiring low levels of education, many of these industries already put vulnerable workers at higher risk for economic instability.

On the other hand, the short-term threat of COVID-19 and long-term automation post vastly different threat levels for farmworkers. While fewer than 10% of agricultural jobs are at risk due to coronavirus, 58% are threatened by automation.

“This difference is understandable in that the virus lockdown cannot stop consumption,” Bluestone said. “Farmers are not likely to stop their production, although problems in logistics and transportation have already begun to impact production.”

The COVID-19 outbreak is expected to accelerate the transformation toward digital technology in businesses experiencing high numbers of layoffs prompted by the virus, according to the study. While the trend will increase productivity in the long run, it could make it difficult for workers lacking sufficient skills to compete in the changed labor market when the pandemic is over.

“Governments, nonprofits and the private sector have an opportunity to support these doubly displaced workers for the long term,” the report concludes. “This is the time for higher education – colleges, universities, vocational and technical schools – to be harnessed quickly to teach people digital and other tools that will be increasingly in demand as the COVID-19 cloud lifts.”