January 27, 2017

Tunnel Vision

Tunnel Vision

I came back to New York from a business trip Sunday night. I landed at JFK Airport in Queens and headed by car into NYC to go home. Recently, the MTA, which runs the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, converted over to the cashless toll system that is found in many places across the country. What I didn’t expect to see as I entered the tunnel was that the toll plaza, a fixture entering Manhattan for my entire life, no longer exists. Gone. Goodbye. Sayonara.

Well, I’m not going to write the obituary for the tollbooth at the Midtown Tunnel, but it got me thinking, in the kind of flashback moment you could picture in a “Bourne” film, about the trip I had just taken and how different things would have been just five years ago (well, maybe not exactly a “Bourne” flashback, but I’m hoping you get the picture).

I started planning this particular trip a couple of weeks ago. One night after work, sitting on the couch at home with one eye on the TV, I took out my iPhone, hit the JetBlue app, and booked my round trip air travel. I then Googled the hotel closest to our office and reserved my room. Next, it was the Hertz app for the rental car and, finally, the Capital Grille app for a dinner reservation. The morning I left on this particular trip, I downloaded my boarding pass, again with the JetBlue app, used my Uber app to get a ride to the airport, and off I went. Same routine on the way back, and this time, no one to take our toll – just an electronic toll reader on the NYC side of the tunnel.

Five short years ago, this trip would have required a travel agent for the airline and hotel reservation, a ticket agent for a boarding pass, a telephone sales person at Hertz or whatever car service I was using to coordinate airport rides, someone to take a restaurant reservation, and a toll taker to facilitate my payment for leaving and entering Manhattan. Today, none of those jobs exist or, in the best case scenario, far fewer people are needed to do them. All because of technology. Now, while jobs that existed a mere five years ago may have disappeared, there are legions of app developers, programmers, engineers, and others whose jobs have been created to build and support all of this technology. There are complete sectors of the economy that didn’t exist five years ago that are thriving.

So I guess where all of this is bringing me this week is to the issue of jobs and who or what is taking them. Have we lost jobs to imports? Most certainly. But it seems to me that we’ve lost whole job sectors not because we moved them offshore, but rather because of technological advancements that let machines do some of the tasks that humans used to perform. And the trend is only going to continue.

Amazon now has stores that don’t need cashiers or cash registers; Google and Uber are experimenting with driverless cars (you won’t find me in one anytime soon); fast food restaurants are testing robots to fill orders; and it doesn’t stop there.

The coal miners in West Virginia who are unemployed today will continue to be unemployed as coal miners; and we’re not rebuilding steel plants in Pittsburgh. So those workers won’t be coming back to those jobs. We are going to have to retrain and redeploy coal miners and steel factory workers and workers from other traditional industries to be employable in the technology economy.

Here at Marcum, we are employing technologies to perform routine tasks once done by our first-year accountants and interns. While technology has changed our business over time, we will probably see even greater change in the next couple of years, more than in the entire history of the accounting profession. And if we don’t change with it, we as a firm and an industry will become obsolete.

So while it’s popular right now to talk about imposing tariffs, renegotiating trade agreements, and threatening to tax companies that ship jobs overseas, I’m not sure how you penalize innovation and technology to save jobs that will certainly become obsolete in the very near future. Let’s face it: when the Queens-Midtown Tunnel becomes a symbol of technological advancement, there’s simply no going back.