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Technology destroys, and also enhances, Long Island jobs

Zelice Barclift, seen on Nov. 6, 2017, who

Zelice Barclift, seen on Nov. 6, 2017, who runs her own tax preparation business in Deer Park, isn't concerned about technology overtaking her job. Credit: Barry Sloan

Technology is both a destroyer and enhancer of jobs on Long Island.

The internet and software have changed the way people book travel, do their taxes, and send and receive messages, creating steep job losses among workers in those fields, local and national economists say.

From May 2005 to May 2016, the number of local jobs has fallen sharply in the following fields, according to the latest data from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics:

  • Travel agents: down 43 percent, to 650 from 1,150
  • Tax preparers: down 62 percent, to 270 from 710
  • Couriers and messengers: down 52 percent, to 460 from 950

Despite those losses, Long Island has close to a record number of jobs: 1.34 million in September, the most ever for that month, and up from 1.25 million in September 2005, according to the state Labor Department.

That job growth has been powered by other industries — most notably health care, which got a boost from expansion of services under the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.

Workers in some professions that have lost jobs because of technology say they embrace the change it brings because it enhances their work and improves the service they give customers.

Michael Dolan, 32, team leader in the Massapequa Park office of Liberty Travel, said the internet allows him to deeply research travel locations, enabling him to better match those spots with customers’ interests and personalities.

“In the last several years [technology] has been more of a benefit to us,” Dolan said.

Such sentiments demonstrate that the technology vs. jobs debate oversimplifies the relationship between the two.

The connection between technology and job loss is analyzed in a June study from Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. The study — titled “How Vulnerable Are American Communities to Automation, Trade and Urbanization?” — highlights occupations most at risk for losses because of high tech.

The effect of international trade on American jobs was in focus during the presidential election. The Ball State study found that trade had less impact than many assumed.

“The debate is all about trade, when it should be all about automation,” economist Michael Hicks, co-author of the study and head of Ball State’s Center for Business and Economic Research, said in an interview. “For every job we have lost that way, we have lost between eight and nine other jobs to automation.”

Some jobs cited in the Ball State study of national job losses also showed declines on Long Island. The number of local telemarketers fell 87 percent between May 2005 and May 2016, to 760; data entry keyers fell 41 percent to 2,250; and insurance underwriter positions fell 15 percent to 1,140, according to the bureau’s data. Earlier data aren’t consistent because the bureau changed its methodology in 2005.

Technology’s effect on the job market isn’t one-sided. It can boost demand for some kinds of work, even outside the technology field, said economist Gregory DeFreitas, who heads Hofstra University’s labor studies program.

“Automation lowers prices,” he said. “That enables people to buy more stuff. That increases retail and service jobs.”

The online edition of the federal Occupational Outlook Handbook notes the pressure travel agents face from the web: “The ability of travelers to use the Internet to research vacations and book their own trips is expected to continue to suppress demand for travel agents.”

And yet, like Dolan of Liberty Travel, several travel agents praised the wealth of information the internet offers.

Angelo Scuccimarri, 44, who co-owns Wishes Come True Travel in Levittown, is well aware of the effects of technology. “The industry has taken a hit because of the online agencies,” he said.

But technology also enables him to research and offer more destinations to clients, he said.

“You can’t have visited every destination everywhere around the world,” he said.

Dolan said that after Hurricane Irma roared through the Caribbean and Florida, online research allowed him to offer his disrupted customers alternate destinations.

“We are able to make those changes and get customers settled again more quickly,” he said.

Telemarketer Maureen DiBella, 56, the owner of Professional Telemarketing Services in North Bellmore, focuses on business-to-business marketing. An old bit of technology is key to her, she said: “My skill set is on the phone.” Her affinity for the telephone was clear when she was just 8 years old and her father would limit her time on the phone by using an egg timer.

But modern electronic tools allow her to log onto a client’s database and receive and send emails with the client’s corporate name when she is trying to drum up business for special events.

And for getting new business, technology is a godsend, she said.

“Technology allows me to get business without referrals” because her business is visible on social media, said DiBella, who also works part time for a California company. “With LinkedIn and all the different social media, people started reaching out to me, and I have never had to advertise.”

Some tax preparers on Long Island said the focus on tech-induced job losses in their sector obscures how the new tools give them staying power.

“My business has been enhanced by” technology, said certified public accountant Roy Goldstein, who owns RMG in Melville. “Technology has made tax research far more available.”

He admitted that as more people become computer literate they are “not afraid” to use software to do their taxes. But, he said, “if there is any complexity to a tax return, it takes too much tax knowledge for the individual to use the software.”

Edward Helm, 57, a Massapequa CPA whose clients include small businesses and individuals, also said high tech has boosted his business.

“With technology, routine data can be automated, and that allows more time to look into bigger goals like expanding businesses,” he said.

Zelice Barclift, 52, owner of Barclift Tax Service in Deer Park, pointed out a key benefit of software to her business: “Technology simplifies the process of preparing tax returns.”

She said some clients stopped coming after they discovered TurboTax, an online tax preparation program, but clients can gain from her knowledge of tax law.

“If you don’t know certain laws, how do you know that you are taking advantage of the most deductions that you possibly can?” she said.

Another impact of technology is on wages.

Automation and the offshoring of jobs have depressed wages, said Martin Melkonian, an associate professor of economics at Hofstra.

“The fact that [companies] can outsource jobs at lower costs is certainly a major reason along with automation that we have stagnant median wages, while profits have soared.”

The median hourly wage on Long Island in May 2016 rose 19 cents, or less than 1 percent, from a year earlier, to $20.31, Bureau of Labor Statistics data show.

Profits from productivity gains due to automation have largely flowed to companies, not to workers, Melkonian said.

“Workers aren’t able to take advantage of automation because automation means you can do away with a large number of workers, and they lose their bargaining power.”

Local economists have long noted that automation in manufacturing, one of the Island’s highest-paying sectors, has contributed to shrinking employment in the industry. The sector had 70,200 jobs in September, down 13,100 from a decade earlier, state Labor Department data show.

But automation has other bright spots, economic experts said.

“Automation, as much as it causes short-term turbulence, also relieves us from mundane tasks that maybe human beings aren’t best designed for,” Hicks, the Ball State economist, said.

Hofstra’s DeFreitas said Long Island is in good condition when it comes to handling the change in employment from technology.

“The more vulnerable occupations are already pretty small in terms of the Long Island job market,” DeFreitas said. “I think we are better positioned than a lot of other areas of the country thanks to higher college graduation rates on Long Island and the growth in health jobs on Long Island, which are less vulnerable to automation and offshoring.”

Technology has cost jobs in specific fields. Numbers are for the change in Long Island job totals from May 2005 to May 2016.

Telemarketers down 87 percent

Tax preparers down 62 percent

Couriers and messengers down 52 percent

Travel agents down 43 percent

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

... But overall employment on LI is near a record:

1.34 million jobs: September 2017

1.25 million jobs: September 2005

Source: New York Labor Department

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