FILE - Automaton robot, car factory, assembly line

Industry and academic leaders told a Florida Senate panel Wednesday that teaching “soft skills” such as teamwork and adaptation will help build a workforce that can continuously learn the newest “hard skills.”

The capacity to do so, they maintain, will be pivotal in surviving the impending “automation apocalypse,” which numerous studies say could eliminate one-third to nearly one-half of existing jobs in the United States within the next 20 years.

“That’s the flip side – the dark side – of innovation,” Orlando Economic Partnership Senior VP Dale A. Brill told the Senate Commerce & Tourism Committee.

The state has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in incubating commercial development of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine-learning technologies, most notably the SunTrax autonomous vehicle (AV) testing facility at Florida Polytechnic University.

Earlier this year, Florida lawmakers passed a bill allowing driverless vehicles to legally operate on the state’s roads.

Florida Trucking Association President/CEO Kenneth S. Armstrong told the panel that driverless, cab-less trucks with motorized trailers already “operate completely autonomously between cities” in Sweden.

With the average age of an American long-haul trucker at 55, Armstrong said trucking is among jobs that could become careers and businesses without a college degree that now face obsolescence.

Those who can’t adjust, can’t “migrate” to new skills, will stagnate, he said.

“I still worry a lot about people who don’t want to be ‘migrated,’” Armstrong said. “A lot of people, they don’t want to go back to school or training.”

University of Central Florida Assistant Professor Arthur Huang said the state must develop a K-12 school system that can “match education to future workplace needs.”

“Every city wants a Silicon Valley,” he added, “but you have to have a workforce capable of doing those jobs.”

Jennifer Rake of IBM, noting “the shelf life of skills today has shrunk,” said needed “hard skills” will continue to change as technology evolves.

“No longer can we go out, get our degrees, and figure ‘this is my career for the rest of my life,'” Rake said, adding “soft skills like teamwork” will allow workers to “learn something that is most relevant for the time.”

Without developing an educational strategy to address automation, Huang projected a “huge growth” in “wage polarization and political polarization” in Florida.

A proposal to study how rapidly accelerating advances in automation could affect the state’s workforce gained little traction during the 2018 legislative session.

House Bill 571, sponsored by Rep. Roy Hardemon, D-Miami, would have authorized the state’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA) to examine “the impact of robots and other forms of technology with artificial intelligence on the labor force and tax revenues” over a 20-year “planning horizon.”

The proposed “Robot Tax Study” bill also – as its namesake indicated – tasked the study to determine if “taxing automation that eliminates jobs would do more damage than good to the state’s economy.”

The bill sought a “working definition of ‘robot’ for purposes of taxation” and an analysis of how robots and other artificial intelligence technology have affected workforces in the past and how it could do so in Florida.

Miami-Dade County Councilman Johnny G. Farias said he persuaded Hardemon to introduce the bill after reading of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates’ 2017 suggestion to tax robots that take human jobs.

Thus far, no similar proposal has been pre-filed for the 2020 session.