Will Israel’s vital workers during coronavirus be vital workers in another 20 years?


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The only Israelis allowed to leave their homes for work right now are those deemed “vital workers” by the government. These workers include, among others, those working in food production and supermarkets, healthcare professionals, social workers, security and police, those working in mail and delivery services, and workers in industries like electricity, water, and trash collection.

Though much of the rest of Israel’s economy is essentially being put on hold, or being transferred to “work from home” models, these are the jobs that cannot be done from home and are deemed necessary to meeting the basic needs of Israelis during this time.

But if the coronavirus outbreak had happened 20 years down the line, how many of these vital positions would still be done by people, and therefore require those people to leave their homes and put their own health at risk?

A recent Taub Center study that maps out the Israeli labor market shows that about 15% of existing jobs in Israel are at high risk of automation; that is, at high risk of human jobs being replaced by computerized or automated systems. At the same time, 54% of jobs in Israel are at moderate risk of automation and 31% are at low risk.

Jobs that require repetitive tasks that can be coded into a set of clear rules are most likely to be automated in the coming decades. A large percentage of the jobs at high risk in Israel are in the construction and manufacturing sectors, transportation and storage services, postal and courier services, and food and lodging services. This means that a number of the jobs currently considered vital – the cashier at the supermarket, the person stacking the shelves, the Osem factory worker, the mailman – are at high risk of being replaced by automated systems in the coming years.

On the other hand, the tasks most difficult to automate are those that require an ability to perceive and manipulate, creativity, and social intelligence. This describes another big chunk of Israel’s vital workers during the coronavirus crisis: doctors and nurses, social workers, and defense workers are at much lower risk of their jobs being automated. Even if this crisis were happening 20 years in the future, we would still need people in these positions to continue going to work.

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We might think about the risk of automation as a negative development, fearing that machines will replace people and leave those people with limited options for earning a living. But the current crisis has highlighted that there are also more positive aspects to the trend of automation. Wouldn’t it be better if, during this time of crisis, fewer people had to leave their homes and risk their health to keep Israelis’ needs met?

Digital skills are particularly relevant right now, and technological developments seem to be reducing the employment opportunities of those whose options were limited to begin with. We see that businesses with online sales are continuing to operate, and even educators are adapting and employing distance learning tools. In contrast, many businesses and workers without the relevant digital skills are left behind. While it is too early to assess the damage this situation will have on various groups in Israeli society, it is likely that the damage will be more severe in certain sectors as a result of gaps in digital skills.

Thus, the coronavirus outbreak can teach us something fundamental about the need to train workers left behind by automation. The computer literacy skills that researchers have been saying for years will be important in the future work force are proving critical at this moment in time. From amidst this crisis there may be an opportunity to advance computer and internet skills across Israeli society, taking advantage of this unusual time to improve Israel’s human capital and better prepare Israelis to be “vital workers” in the future labor market.

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