ITHACA, N.Y. — In a recent study, MIT researchers noted Ithaca was among the top ten cities in the United States least likely to experience major job losses due to automation.

For all the political talk about jobs, the economy and making America great again, one topic that tends to be perilously overlooked is the automation of jobs. Replacing McDonald’s cashiers with screens might be the frequent choice of TV pundits, but many skilled  occupations are at risk of automation as technology improves and artificial intelligence becomes more sophisticatedfactory workers, secretaries, truck drivers, even positions with advanced degrees such as pharmacists. A 2013 University of Oxford study estimated that 47% of existing could be automated out of human hands over the next 20 years.

The Ithaca Times recently did an unscientific web poll asking readers who thought their job could be replaced by a robot. The vast majority said “no”. The Times’ editor called Ithaca “a city in denial“, and he didn’t mean the river. Hope springs eternal, one supposes.

A “new media” outlet like the Voice really can’t argue with the Times’ supposed hot and fresh take on the matter, but perhaps some local workers can take solace in MIT Media Lab’s study, which looked at the potential for automation by metropolitan area.

Starting with the 380 metropolitan areas defined by the U.S. Census Bureau, and occupational data from the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, each urban area’s job total was broken down by occupation type into hundreds of subcategories (481, to be specific). For the record, the Ithaca metropolitan area is Tompkins County. So all the stats cover Tompkins as a whole, not just the city of Ithaca.

These many occupational subcategories were then analyzed for 230 workplace skills involved in that line of work, and the specialization of the job duties – routine actions, like typing up a letter, are easier to automate than individualized acts, like designing a new airplane part. The skills data is compiled regularly by labor surveys of employers and jobholders in that line of work. A massive amount of data to be playing with, but it’s safe bet that the eggheads of MIT know what they’re doing, and are arguably more trustworthy than a “best of” list from a random travel magazine.

It’s probably not a big surprise, but positions like food service, cashiers, secretaries and accountants were among those most at risk of automation, while software developers, teachers, nurses and scientists were among the positions least at risk, because they involve fewer routine actions and a greater degree of interpersonal skills, creativity or critical thinking. Another factor in the weighing of each line of work was how imminent the automation technology was.

That was part of reason why metropolitan areas like Napa, California and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina were among the most at risk – the agriculture production industry and hospitality industry are at the front line for automation in the next few years. Places with research institutes or many technology firms, like Boston or Boulder, Colorado, fared much better.

That explains in part why Ithaca was ranked 10th of those 380 communities. Ithaca hosts a disproportionately large number of researchers and professors thanks to Cornell and Ithaca College and hosts a large number of tech business spin-offs from those institutions. A comparatively large number of highly-skilled professionals (doctors, nurses, engineers, lawyers) and many creative workers (artists, graphic designers) also helps Ithaca’s rank.

Other communities that tested well were those with lots of advanced analytical or creative roles, often because a major STEM company, research university or military base was located in the area. In general, larger communities fared better, since they had a greater variety of high-skill specialized jobs – the San Jose (Silicon Valley) and Washington D.C. (defense contractors) metros were #1 and #2 respectively. New York City was 18th, Albany 23rd, Rochester 59th, Syracuse 84th, Binghamton 118th, and Elmira was among the communities most at risk from automation, 336th of 380.

For those who want to poke around the statistics, a copy of the study is here. An interactive copy of the map above can be found in MIT’s write-up/press release here.

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.