The Skill Content of Recent Technological Change: An Empirical Exploration

62 Pages Posted: 16 Jun 2001 Last revised: 29 Jun 2001

See all articles by David H. Autor

David H. Autor

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - Department of Economics; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER); IZA Institute of Labor Economics

Frank S. Levy

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - Department of Urban Studies & Planning

Richard J. Murnane

Harvard University - Harvard Graduate School of Education; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

Multiple version iconThere are 2 versions of this paper

Date Written: June 2001

Abstract

We apply an understanding of what computers do -- the execution of procedural or rules-based logic -- to study how computer technology alters job skill demands. We contend that computer capital (1) substitutes for a limited and well-defined set of human activities, those involving routine (repetitive) cognitive and manual tasks; and (2) complements activities involving non-routine problem solving and interactive tasks. Provided these tasks are imperfect substitutes, our model implies measurable changes in the task content of employment, which we explore using representative data on job task requirements over 1960 -- 1998. Computerization is associated with declining relative industry demand for routine manual and cognitive tasks and increased relative demand for non-routine cognitive tasks. Shifts are evident within detailed industries, within detailed occupations, and within education groups within industries. Translating observed task shifts into educational demands, the sum of within-industry and within-occupation task changes explains thirty to forty percent of the observed relative demand shift favoring college versus non-college labor during 1970 to 1998, with the largest impact felt after 1980. Changes in task content within nominally identical occupations explain more than half of the overall demand shift induced by computerization.

Suggested Citation

Autor, David H. and Levy, Frank S. and Murnane, Richard J., The Skill Content of Recent Technological Change: An Empirical Exploration (June 2001). NBER Working Paper No. w8337. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=273705

David H. Autor (Contact Author)

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Frank S. Levy

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Richard J. Murnane

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