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Relax, robots aren’t taking your jobs

They're just pushing you to greater career heights

Relax, robots aren’t taking your jobs

A new report is debunking the widely-held view that automation will slowly but surely, creep into all sectors of the labour force, resulting in job losses en masse.

The report, issued by the C.D. Howe Institute argues that because Canadian jobs are concentrated in industries that require a high degree of cognitive skills, our labour market is less susceptible to the risk of automation.

“Recent publications have made rather startling claims that large portions of the population face unemployment in the years to come, both in Canada and the United States. This claim, however, is somewhat alarmist,” the report says.

There is, in fact, data to support the idea that we’re not going to be displaced by robots.

Between 1987 and 2015 for instance, employment in non-routine cognitive occupations (think data analysts, lawyers, engineers, doctors) increased by 91 percent — 2.6 million of these kinds of high-skilled jobs were added to the labour market. By contrast, employment in routine occupations (factory workers, cleaning services) grew by only 27 percent over the same period, indicating that the composition of jobs within the Canadian labour market are skewed towards higher-skilled ones.

Another interesting statistic — industries where more than three-quarters of the jobs are at high risk of automation, only account for 1.7 percent of employment in Canada, or 310,000 jobs.

“Automation in some sectors will indeed take place — but it’s not going to be at the pace we think it will,” Rosalie Wyonch, one of the authors of the report told VICE Money.

“Categories of jobs that are most at risk are cashiers, kitchen helpers, food servers — they are already, in a way, being replaced by machines. But I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing.”

“When a person doesn’t have the option of a low-skilled job, it frees him or her up to obtain the training necessary to advance his or her skill set,” Wyonch says.

The Proliferation of Part-Time Work

But it’s not that simple. A recent report by the Conference Board of Canada indicates that Canada lags globally when it comes to workplace skills training and lifelong education. Essentially, we don’t seem to be well-equipped to deal with workers who need to switch fields because their jobs have been lost to automation, or globalization.

What has happened to the labour market instead, according to Trish Hennessy, founding director of the Income Inequality Project at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, is a sharp growth in the number of part-time jobs, one that far outpaces the growth of full-time jobs.

Hennessy draws an interesting link between automation and part-time work. She believes that the almost alarmist conversation about automation is fuelling the proliferation of more short-term, precarious jobs.  

“The more fearful people are that they are going to lose their jobs to robots, the less they will demand in terms of workplace conditions,” she says.

Indeed, we’ve seen this phenomenon take place in Canada’s manufacturing sector. Recent negotiations have seen unionized workers standing down as employers use the threat of automation as a bargaining chip. Most people would much rather have a part-time job, or job without benefits, than no job at all.

Creating A High-Skilled Workforce

The C.D. Howe report suggests two ways in which the Canadian government could deal with a changing labour market. First, kids should be taught critical reasoning and interpersonal skills from an early age, so that by the time they enter the workforce, they will have the necessary edge over any kind of computerized system.

Second, new entrants to the workforce should be equipped with an entrepreneurial mindset.  “As occupations require higher levels of skills, workers will have to adapt and make decisions without requiring managerial input.” Translation — don’t wait, come up with your own ideas.

There’s also the more compassionate way to deal with workers out of a job — government money. A report by Sunil Johal at the Mowat Centre for Public Policy cites Denmark’s labour market as an example Canada could emulate. That model is called “flexicurity” — a combination of the terms flexibility and security — and it pledges to provide unemployed workers training, skill support and an income replacement of up to 90 percent.

When it comes to dealing with automation, says Johal, Canada seems to have had a very good model in the 1960s, but not so much in 2016.

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Cover: Ralph Damman/Vice Illustration

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