Get ready: A mas­sive au­toma­tion shift is com­ing for your job

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - NEWS - CAMP­BELL CLARK

It’s hap­pen­ing sooner than we thought, and gov­ern­ments are ill pre­pared to deal with it

The ro­bots are com­ing to take our jobs and Canada must do a lot more to deal with it.

That’s not the pre­dic­tion of a dooms­day prophet, but of the world’s lead­ing busi­ness con­sul­tant, the man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of global firm McKin­sey & Co. and chair of the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment’s Ad­vi­sory Coun­cil on Eco­nomic Growth, Do­minic Bar­ton.

Okay, ad­mit­tedly, Mr. Bar­ton didn’t ex­actly say the ro­bots are tak­ing over the planet. But he is warn­ing that au­toma­tion – ro­bots, driver­less cars, ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, tech­no­log­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion – will dis­rupt mil­lions of Cana­dian jobs, not far in the future, but in the next dozen years.

Put an­other way: If you are 30 or 35 now, there’s a good chance that not just your job, but the kind of job you do, will be elim­i­nated – at the most in­op­por­tune time of life, when you are 40 to 55, per­haps with a mort­gage and kids.

The coun­cil that Mr. Bar­ton heads is call­ing for a na­tional “re-skilling” effort that would cost $15-bil­lion a year – per year – to help Cana­di­ans cope. He doesn’t think all that money can come from gov­ern­ment, but he thinks it’s go­ing to have to come from some­where.

“The scale of the change is so sig­nif­i­cant. What are we do­ing to re­ally get at that?” Mr. Bar­ton said over the phone from Mel­bourne, Aus­tralia. “We’re talk­ing a re­ally big is­sue.”

This is­sue is a mas­sive sleeper test for the gov­ern­ment. It’s a test for all gov­ern­ments, re­ally, but in this coun­try it’s a test of am­bi­tion for Justin Trudeau’s Lib­eral gov­ern­ment. It could well be the big­gest so­ci­etal is­sue of our time. Fi­nance Min­is­ter Bill Morneau’s next bud­get will be de­liv­ered in less than two weeks. Will it even be­gin to re­flect the scope of the is­sue?

To be fair, Mr. Morneau’s last bud­get talked a lot about job train­ing, and it put some mod­est sums into it. Mr. Morneau, who ran a hu­man-re­sources firm, was talk­ing about these is­sues be­fore he was elected as an MP. But there isn’t yet a gov­ern­ment re­sponse from Ot­tawa that hints at the scale of Mr. Bar­ton’s warn­ing.

He is talk­ing about vast change, soon. There are driver­less cars now, he noted. That makes it easy to see the prospect of truck driv­ers thrown out of work en masse. (The courier firm FedEx has hinted its driver­less ve­hi­cle plans aren’t so far away; the com­pany has 400,000 em­ploy­ees.)

It’s not just truck driv­ers or fac­tory work­ers who could see their jobs washed away by tech­no­log­i­cal change. It in­cludes knowl­edge work­ers, such as well-paid wealth man­agers who could find their cur­rent jobs au­to­mated. The Ad­vi­sory Coun­cil es­ti­mated 10 to 12 per cent of Cana­dian work­ers could see their jobs dis­rupted by tech­nol­ogy by 2030. “That’s two mil­lion peo­ple,” he noted. Mr. Bar­ton thinks the es­ti­mate is con­ser­va­tive.

That’s dif­fer­ent from when a com­pany goes bank­rupt or a plant closes, and laid-off work­ers go look for the same job at an­other com­pany. Tech­no­log­i­cal change will wipe out oc­cu­pa­tions. Peo­ple will need to do new kinds of work, and they will need new skills. Tech­nol­ogy might also cre­ate mil­lions of jobs, but if Cana­di­ans don’t have the skills, a lot of those jobs might go to the United States or China or Swe­den.

If you’ve watched the way vot­ers in the United States and else­where have re­sponded to dis­rup­tions of well-pay­ing man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs and good job op­por­tu­ni­ties, how it has fu­elled di­vi­sive pol­i­tics, an anti-trade back­lash, and anti-im­mi­grant na­tivism, just imag­ine how so­ci­ety could be roiled by two mil­lion mid­dle-aged Cana­di­ans look­ing for work with­out much idea how they’re go­ing to start over.

The Ad­vi­sory Coun­cil ar­gued that it has to be met with a ma­jor re­vamp of job train­ing and life­long ed­u­ca­tion and a $15bil­lion in­jec­tion of re­sources.

It’s an enor­mous sum, about three-quar­ters of the cost of the mil­i­tary. It’s too much for fed­eral and provin­cial gov­ern­ments to pay alone, he ar­gues, but busi­ness will have to be given in­cen­tives to do more ed­u­ca­tion and train­ing. In­di­vid­u­als, even those who feel squeezed sav­ing for re­tire­ment, will have to save for life­long learn­ing, per­haps with tax-shel­tered learn­ing ac­counts. They won’t have a choice, he be­lieves, “be­cause it’s com­ing.”

The ad­vi­sory coun­cil was ap­pointed by the Lib­er­als, and Mr. Bar­ton has the ear of Mr. Trudeau and his in­ner cir­cle. The Lib­eral gov­ern­ment has adopted a lot of the coun­cil’s rec­om­men­da­tions, to vary­ing de­grees, in its strat­egy to foster eco­nomic growth. But Mr. Bar­ton noted the one with the big­gest es­ti­mate im­pact is that mas­sive re-skilling ini­tia­tive. So far, gov­ern­ments are work­ing on the same scale to face up to the im­pact of au­toma­tion, but they will have to face it sooner or later. It’s com­ing.

If you are 30 or 35 now, there’s a good chance that not just your job, but the kind of job you do, will be elim­i­nated.

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