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Many Workers Haven't Returned; Could That Lead to More Automation?

John Minchillo/AP
Laborers work the factory floor at the Stihl Inc. manufacturing facility, Thursday, May 25, 2017 in Virginia Beach.

As schools return to in-person classes and pandemic-restrictions are reduced, Virginia's economy is still missing many of the workers from before the pandemic.

Across Virginia, many workers have yet to return to the workforce. Whether that's because of child care or concerns about the delta variant or whatever the reason, it's creating pressure on businesses who are increasingly desperate for employees.

Michael Farren at George Mason University's Mercatus Center says a jobless recovery could lead to increasing automation — robots essentially doing the work humans used to do.

"My fear is that the last workers that finally say, ‘OK I'm going to start looking for work and get serious about this now.’ They're going to discover that the demand for labor has been reduced," Farren explains.

Leslie Stratton at Virginia Commonwealth University says the idea that robots might pick up some of the work that humans used to do actually has an upside.

"There's also a push in some areas anyway to reduce the number of hours and the number of days one works in a week, Stratton says. "So maybe with increased use of technology that might increase productivity and allow people to work fewer hours in a week and yet take home similar size paychecks. So there is an upside to this as well, potentially."

She also says increased automation will have a cost; people who were employed in jobs that become automated will have to retool and reskill in order to find work when they're ready to return to the workforce.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria. He has reported for NPR, the New York Daily News and the Alexandria Gazette Packet. He has a master's degree in American Studies from Florida State University, and he is a former adjunct professor at Tallahassee Community College. He is the author of four books.