How computerized work affects immigration

July 19, 2013

In 1900, 41 percent of the U.S. workforce was employed in agriculture. One hundred years later, that share had declined to 1.9 percent. Over that interval, the jobs that were easy and cheap to mechanize were mechanized, and now we are left with a handful of jobs that machines find extremely difficult to do. Machines can’t make strategic decisions about which crops to grow, and as a general rule they can’t fix themselves, so that leaves a significant role for managers and mechanics. Until recently, machines were also really bad at doing things like picking heads of lettuce and other delicate crops, as this requires a deftness of hand and an attention to detail that machines lack.

This is why the agricultural sector continues to have an appetite for less-skilled labor, which has been a huge driver of the recent comprehensive immigration reform effort. The idea is that because native-born Americans will never pick cucumbers — or at least because they will never pick cucumbers at a wage that would make for affordable cucumbers — we need a steady supply of less-skilled, low-wage workers to keep farms that grow cucumbers and lettuce and other delicate crops viable.

Now, however, a number of innovative firms have developed machines that use sophisticated sensors and an enormous amount of raw computing power to do jobs that had once been beyond the reach of machines. The reporters Gosia Wozniacka and Terence Chea recently described a Lettuce Bot that can “thin” a lettuce field in the time it would take twenty workers to do the same. Though the Lettuce Bot and machines like it remain expensive, there is every reason to believe that prices will fall. These picking machines are not quite good enough to pick fresh-market fruit, but they’re getting there. The reason these machines are being developed is the same reason agribusiness interests have been agitating for a substantial increase in less-skilled immigration: the supply of workers willing to work the fields is not big enough to keep wages extremely low, and so farms have been desperate for low-cost alternatives.

A similar desperation drives technological innovation across the U.S. economy. Consider one of the most exciting developments of recent years, Google’s self-driving cars, which promise to liberate human drivers from drudgery. Of course, another way to liberate oneself from having to drive is to hire someone else to drive for you. Plenty of city dwellers hire taxis from time to time, but personal chauffeurs are beyond the reach of all but the most affluent Americans. This would be less true if, for example, Congress decided to create a special visa for would-be chauffeurs from the developing world, designed to welcome every able-bodied woman and man willing to drive a car for the minimum wage. To be sure, hiring a personal chauffeur would still be expensive, particularly if you intend to provide a wide range of fringe benefits. But the demand for self-driving cars would presumably be much smaller than it is without this steady stream of low-wage chauffeurs. Limiting the supply of would-be immigrant chauffeurs has made life somewhat less convenient for those of us who’d welcome being driven around, whether by a machine or by a living, breathing person, but there is good reason to believe that technological innovation will get us to something like the same happy outcome.

The fact that technological innovation is spurred by labor scarcity isn’t in itself a reason to oppose less-skilled immigration. But it is a useful reminder that a modern economy is a dynamic system, and that the current structure of the labor market is not set in stone. As we debate immigration reform, it is important that we keep this in mind. Jobs that are currently unattractive to workers with a high school diploma or more might become more attractive to them as mechanization drives a reduction in mid-skilled jobs, thus undermining the notion that there are jobs that Americans won’t do. And jobs that have traditionally been done by less-skilled immigrants might be rendered obsolete by machines like the Lettuce Bot.

Frank Levy and Richard Murnane, two of America’s leading experts on how technological change is shaping the labor market, have just released a new report sponsored by the center-left think tank Third Way, “Dancing with Robots: Human Skills for Computerized Work.” Their basic premise is that as machines get better at performing routine, structured, rule-based tasks, workers will have to focus on tasks that exploit the flexibility of the human mind. Levy and Murnane find that in occupations subject to computer substitution, most of which are found in the middle of the skill distribution, the number of jobs has been growing more slowly than in occupations that are not at risk of computer substitution. They project that this trend will intensify in the years to come. This spread of computerized work has, in their view, contributed to the deterioration of the labor market position of less-skilled and mid-skilled workers. This development, in turn, appears to have contributed to declining marriage rates and family formation among the non-college-educated. The end result is that even as education becomes more important, a growing share of children are being raised in households that aren’t giving them the foundational skills they need to flourish academically.

Levy and Murnane end “Dancing with Robots” with a call for increased investment in human capital, with an emphasis on early childhood education and career and technical education for students who aren’t bound for college. Their prescriptions are interesting and worthwhile. Yet I was struck by the fact that Levy and Murnane made no reference to less-skilled immigration, as one implication of their work is that future technological developments threaten to further undermine the relative position of less-skilled U.S. workers, and that this in turn will have knock-on effects on the children of those workers. If this is indeed the case, is now the ideal time to welcome a new wave of less-skilled immigrants, many of whom will struggle to adapt as computerized work continues to spread?

PHOTO: A worker sifts through a container of picked grapes at a vineyard at Napa Valley winery Cakebread Cellars, during the wine harvest season in Rutherford, California September 12, 2008. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith 


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Excellent, incisive article.

“…is now the ideal time to welcome a new wave of less-skilled immigrants, many of whom will struggle to adapt as computerized work continues to spread?”

Considering the ever-increasing number of American citizens being idled by “computerized work”, ABSOLUTELY NOT!

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Take any agricultural crop, for example tomatoes.

Growing tomatoes entails many EXPENSES:

– Capital to acquire or own the land. Or leasing expense to rent the land.
– Seeds expense
– Fertilizer expense
– Chemicals expense: Herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, nutritionals.
– Water expense
– Irrigation equipment expense
– Heavy equipment expense
– Management and executive salary expense
– Crop testing expense
– Marketing expense
– Brokerage commission expense
– Transportation expense
– Farm labor expense

The last item, farm labor expense is but a tiny part of the cost of delivering tomatoes to the grocery shelf.

If American ag corporations were to pay tomato harvesters $30/hour instead of $8/hour, the price of tomatoes at the grocer, currently about $2.99/pound would barely be affected.

Yet this article continues the lie, the propaganda, that if agricultural corporations were to pay good, high wages to farm laborers, America could not afford it. That is big money propaganda.

Before the great wave of illegal immigration that started in about 1990, tomato farm laborers were Americans, not immigrants. Yes, tomatoes were harvested by hard-working, good Americans.

And the price of tomatoes at the grocery shelf was a very good bargain for the American consumer.

This article is just another propaganda piece fed to the media by the public relations organizations hired by big agriculture and big money to sway public opinion in this run up to pass the immigration amnesty currently before Congress.

The truth is that the current massive immigration into the USA is destroying the American middle class, who are seeing their wages plummet, their jobs disappear, and their families destroyed.

While the wealthy grow richer with each immigrant that arrives, whether from Mexico, China, India, Philippines, Indonesia, Nigeria or Somalia. Because each new immigrant will occupy an apartment or house, driving up rents for everybody and making the landlords richer.

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

Educating Americans will do no good if America does not defend itself against the huge wave of immigration, both legal and illegal, the is currently invading every American neighborhood.

There are thousands of highly educated American engineers, the best of the best, with the very latest hottest skillset, who are seeing their wage rate plummet, and are seeing Indian immigrants sitting in the cubicles next to them.

The H1B visa program has destroyed the American middle class.

It’s really a simple case of supply and demand. Consider an analogy. Consider, for example, what would happen if H1B were applied to plumbers instead of engineers.

Pick any city, let’s say, Denver, Colorado. Now, bring in 100 busloads of freshly graduated Indian or Chinese plumbers (4,000 new plumbers), who want to enter into the plumbing business in Denver, and make a living.

The result? Wage rates for plumbers will become depressed. The existing 960 American plumbers in Denver, once busy every day, and making a good living, will now have much less work, or no work at all.

All the Denver highschool kids hear from their fathers and uncles that plumbing is no longer a good way to make a living. The plumber wages are going down, down, down. In droves, they choose some other path in life. Who can compete with improverished hordes of plumbers from India who will work for any price? India has 1.17 BILLION people, and many of them are coming here, flooding our labor markets.

The H1B visa law was created, written and lobbied for by large American corporations as a means for decreasing their engineering labor costs. Indeed their corporate profits have zoomed up, up, up — while the wage rates paid to their American engineers have gone down, down, down.

This is what the H1B visa has done to the American engineering profession. H1B has already brought in over one million foreign engineers to America, thus driving down American wage rates, and discouraging American kids from majoring in engineering.

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

Great article! Well Done.
Sorry @AdamSmith, the Tomato comparison doesn’t hold water. But I do agree that we should reduce, not increase all forms of immigration right now. I think the author is pointing that out pretty well.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

@tmc – Your comment is well taken.

But remember history, brutal as it is, shows over and over that life is a jungle. Hitler is one example, Napoleon is another, and the “globalization” of today a third example. All a jungle, as Darwin explained.

I’m of the opinion now that Americans must begin to stick together immediately, today, or we’ll be soon overwhelmed by the rest of the world.

Now I realize, belatedly, that even though I’m an American engineer and not an American agricultural laborer, I must look out for my fellow American, whether he’s educated or uneducated. If I let the world eat him, the American agricultural worker, alive, and devour his family, then it harms America as a society, and thus harms me.

Immigration is an immediate exigent threat destroying the American middle class now, this week.

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

Chauffeurs….really? Yeah. That’s my dream – to have someone from a third world country drive me to the dentist. That’s an absurd example. Why would we want to “import” low-wage drivers, or low-wage anybody?

The mechanization of farming shuts everyone out of low-skilled, low-wage jobs – Americans, too. But in the end it will be cheaper for the farmers and keep the price of lettuce low. Heaven forbid I pay .56 more for a head of lettuce.

AdamSmith, I don’t think it’s as much immigration, illegal or otherwise, that is the immediate threat. I think it’s Globalization – the importing and exporting of low-skilled workers and middle-class jobs, respectively, and all so that the corporations can keep their costs low, lower and lowest – at the expense of the average, middle-class Americans.

The problem is Congress is giving corporations tax breaks every time we turn around. I think if we gave *meaningful* tax breaks to corporations for hiring American citizens (in the U.S. or outside it) we’d see the job market, and thus the middle-class, shoot through the roof.

The drivers of the U.S. economy, Congress and Corporations, don’t want to spread Democracy, they want to spread capitalism. There is nothing horrible about wanting to go into foreign markets unless it is at the expense of our own.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive


“I think if we gave “meaningful” tax breaks to corporations for hiring American citizens (in the U.S. or outside it) we’d see the job market…shoot through the roof.” If we use the word “businesses”, I agree.

“The drivers of the U.S. economy, Congress and Corporations, don’t want to spread Democracy, they want to spread capitalism.” Uhhh, no. Capitalism and profit are the drivers of prosperity for the U.S. economy and world wide.

It spreads like a weed all by itself, even to Red China. It is so powerful it can transform any country and works well in many “harnesses”.

There is nothing horrible about “foreign markets” learning to fish in America’s economy to improve their people’s lives and standard of living. I am confident that Americans enjoy sufficient advantages in capital, education and, in particular, innovation that America can compete on a world stage where the “best and brightest” of other countries lift more and more out of dead end poverty.

Is it not better for China to make things Americans will buy than return to the 1950’s when their only “way forward” was as Russia’s pawn in Korea providing cannon fodder and munitions? In real life we don’t choose between lovely dreams, but from real alternatives; none perfect.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Problem with allowing illegal aliens to gain legal status is they will NOT be in the fields doing that work. They will be taking core jobs that Americans will do. Problem with allowing them *rights* and *protections* from getting kicked out also gives them balls to challenge the country for giving them more. They don’t want to pick crops and neither do their children. But if that’s what the country needs we can do so through strict enforcement and NO benefits to illegal aliens with a solid agricultural visa system that doesn’t allow them to stay, only seasonal.

Posted by Syanis | Report as abusive