As technological innovation continues to automate the modern workforce, Canadians can expect big changes to the job sector of the near future.
Computer automation, robotics and artificial intelligence will take over more tasks, replacing human labour in the process. Yet above and beyond replacement, technology is set to make many jobs fully obsolete, says Dave Ticoll of the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, and Canada needs to start preparing for the change, one which will impact an estimated 30 to 40 per cent of the current labour force.
Forecasting the demise of the labourer is as old as the Industrial Revolution but recent prognostications appear particularly dire. A recent report to the federal government warned that about 40 per cent of existing jobs in Canada will disappear over just the next decade, with service industry jobs like retail sales, food counter attendants and cashiers along with administrative assistant and truck driver positions all expected to take major hits, losing up to 95 per cent of employment by some accounts.
The automation revolution will create all sorts of social challenges, perhaps first among them a widening gap between those with so-called STEM-based jobs (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) versus those without, a social and wage gap that will only increase as automation continues to move to the centre of most sectors.
But even these assessments leave out one crucial factor, according to Dave Ticoll of the Innovation Policy Lab at U of T, whose recent article in Policy Options argues that apart from replacing jobs, technology will make whole sectors of the current workforce obsolete, effectively erasing them from the employment landscape.
“Traditional jobs automation research focuses on one question: can a computer do this work?” Ticoll says. “But to forecast labour obsolescence we must assess both technology and business innovation as they play out in a specific sector.”
Ticoll holds up the automobile industry as a prime example. With the birth of the internal combustion engine, job creation was spurred as a whole new sector of employment blossomed, from car manufacturer to gas station attendant and all points in between. Then, with the growth of automation in the industry, job replacement occurred as humans were replaced by robots, for example, on the assembly line.
But the future is expected to be a whole lot different for the car industry. On-demand, automated transport, self-driving vehicles and car-sharing services are expected to take over, as many people decide to forego the expense of owning their own car. In a significant way, this will mean the death of the car industry and its related employment sectors, killing off jobs in manufacturing but also in related fields like truck driving and auto insurance.
Ticoll argues that Canada needs to take heed of the inevitable and prepare for this destruction of major sections of the workforce, doubling down on STEM-type skills development but also in creating a much wider social safety net for those whose will likely become either unemployed or stuck in poorly paid jobs.
“Canada is a relatively small country compared with the United States, China or Europe,” says Ticoll. “Our labour force is only about 18 million people. So we could potentially achieve a higher density of people with technological skills. It’s easier to train and keep occupied 18 million people than 10 or 20 times that number. If we do things right we will adapt faster than anyone.”