Nov. 20, 2012 -- When will the jobs return? That's been the question in this glacially slow recovery.
The answer? Many of jobs won't be coming back, and that's painful news for all of us.
Job creation ebbed for years before the 2007-2008 recession and is likely to fall far short of what it was in previous decades.
Low consumer demand is one reason. Companies have no reason to hire if people aren't buying their products, and recession-wracked Europe, our biggest consumer, isn't consuming as much.
Yet there's another reason for weak job creation that isn't talked about as much. Automation, aided by new technologies, is increasingly replacing labor, changing workplaces and altering the economy in fundamental ways.For evidence of this trend, just look around your house, your office (if you're fortunate enough to have one) and the nearest shopping center.
• IPhones, iPads, and other devices are changing the way we shop, communicate and get news and information, disrupting old labor-intensive industries, such as newspapers and the U.S. Postal Service, while creating new ones that generally employ far fewer people.
• Online banking, brokerage and mortgages are increasingly making it easier for consumers to never set foot in a brick-and-mortar bank.
• Movie-downloading services such as Netflix and Redbox have hastened the demise of video stores.
• Self-checkout aisles at stores and gas stations have eliminated thousands of retail jobs.
Truck drivers' jobs might soon be on the line too. Experiments with computer-driven vehicles have had vastly improved results in the past several years. In 2005, computer-driven cars could go only a few miles. Recently, Google-operated cars went thousands of miles without a mishap, and California Gov. Jerry Brown just signed a bill to allow them on the state's highways.
As technology evolves at an ever-increasing rate, new jobs are created but not fast enough to replace the jobs that are disappearing. This is creating hardship for millions of Americans.
"At some point in the future -- it might be many years or decades from now -- machines will be able to do the jobs of a large percentage of the 'average' people in our population, and these people will not be able to find new jobs," writes Martin Ford in his eye-opening book Lights in the Tunnel, which can be downloaded for free. This book details the challenges that we face and offers some possible solutions, including shorter work weeks, job sharing, and eliminating payroll taxes so employers have less incentive to replace workers.
David Autor, an economist at MIT, points out that the job market has been "hollowed out," with the jobs in the middle -- clerks, administrative positions, factory workers -- disappearing. At the same time, high-wage jobs have been created in computer programming and biotech. Low-wage, automation-resistant jobs in such industries as food service and health care are doing just fine.
While government officials can and should worry about how to create more good-paying jobs, investors who have long suffered from a sideways stock market can profit by seeking out companies on the leading edge of the automation phenomenon.
Examples include Rockwell Automation, which makes industrial systems; Irobot, a maker of automated tools such as vacuum cleaners and floor washers; Aerovironoment, which manufactures unmanned aircraft and other vehicles, and NCR, a great example of an old-line firm that morphed from mechanical cash registers to ATMs and automated check-in systems.
Another approach to finding investment opportunities stemming from the automation trend is to look for stocks with high sales to employees. A recent survey by Bloomberg calls attention to some companies with high sales-to-employee ratios. Among them: Apple, eBay, Microsoft, Amgen and Google.
Every industrial revolution has been accompanied by new technology that underpins the innovations, and that is also fertile ground for investors seeking growth. Microchips, computer storage, optical drives, LCDs, fiber optics and nanotechnology are just a few of the innovations that are driving the new economy.
Green energy is another trend that's here to stay. The list of these companies is long but worth investigating for investing ideas.
The good news is that the United States has enormous capacity to supply needed goods and services (with less labor than ever before, which means higher productivity). Jobs are being replaced, to be sure. However, every scenario that Ford envisions won't necessarily come to pass. Innovators in the global and U.S. economies will doubtless find new ways to make money.
This could mean that today's manufacturing jobs will be increasingly supplanted by more service jobs. For example, all of the new automation equipment will need servicing. One thing that seers of the high-tech future typically fail to envision is technology needs a lot of work to keep it running.
Whatever the future holds along these lines, investing in old-line firms that are labor intensive seems to be an increasingly bad bet. Such companies tend to be mature, which typically means low-growth potential and low investment returns. By focusing on high-revenue companies that harness automation, however, you'll be looking to the future. And after all, investing is all about the future.
Yet it's important to keep in mind that the future never unfolds as neatly as even the best seers predict -- even when they're basically right. The key is to keep abreast of economic developments to see new niches of investing opportunity developing as a result of the automation trend.
On a brighter economic note, this investment will spur general economic growth that, for all we now know, could ultimately produce new jobs in areas that now we can't even conceive.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Ted Schwartz, a certified financial planner, is president and chief investment officer of Capstone Investment Financial Group. He advises individual investors and endowments, and serves as the adviser to CIFG UMA accounts. Because Schwartz has a background in psychology and counseling, he brings insights into personal motivation when advising clients on how to achieve their wealth management goals. Schwartz holds a B.A. from Duke University and an M.A. from Oregon State University. He can be reached at email@example.com.