42 percent of working Canadians at high risk of being replaced by automation, says study

The one big silver lining is the eventual occurrence of net long-term job creation in low-risk professions is far greater than job losses in high-risk ones.
Written by Rajiv Rao, Contributing Writer

If you are on the verge of graduating from high school and wrestling with what to do with the rest of your life, or re-training yourself for another job mid-career, a study by Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship located in Toronto, Canada and housed within Ryerson University may have an impact.

Their recent study, The Talented Mr. Robot: The impact of automation on Canada's workforce says a staggering 42 percent of the Canadian workforce is at high risk of being affected by automation over the next 10 to 20 years, with over a 70 percent probability of this happening.

The study focuses on the land of the maple leaf but chances are it has ramifications that could be very applicable to you if you live in a country that has a similar economy or labour force.

The fundamental question that you need to ask yourself, and which this report addresses, is whether you are doing something that machines could possibly do better. Are you in retail sales, an administrative officer, or a food counter attendant, cashier, or a transport truck driver in Canada? If so, your job which lies in the "high risk" category in the report, may very well disappear in the next decade or more.

On the other hand, if you are a Canadian retail or wholesale trade manager, registered nurse, an elementary or kindergarten teacher, an early childhood educator or a secondary school teacher you will be sitting pretty when the rise of the machines swamps low-end tasks in your economy.

Of course, not many future workers start out dreaming of being a cashier or a food attendant so this isn't particularly helpful, you may think, but that's besides the point. First, these jobs are crucial to those who haven't been able to find employment elsewhere or are crucial in supporting entire families who may not have members with educational or trade qualifications that could get them employed in better-paying areas of the economy. Take these away and a substantial chunk of your workforce is on the streets looking for food and housing. As it is, in Toronto, you will often find doctors and engineers driving cabs and working in fast-food restaurants because they can't find jobs in their professions.

Second, if you look at the detailed chart listing occupations and their vulnerability (on page 28 of the study), there are other jobs seemingly a lot higher on the value chain than cashiers and admin assistants that share the same risk profile. Thinking of studying accounting? Want to get into insurance adjusting or claims analysis? Thinking of becoming a medical lab technician? All of these are imperiled by over a 90 percent chance of being extinguished by automation, says the study.

A quick scan of the chart in the study makes it more than clear that those who operate machinery, inspect things, provide support functionalities, are in sales and service roles, and are in technical occupations especially in health and applied sciences are the most vulnerable to being replaced by robots.

What's worse is that around another 18 percent of jobs have a 70 percent or more risk of their work tasks being replaced by machines.

Those jobs that require a human touch -- think about sending your children to a school operated by robots or being managed by one at work and you'll quickly get an idea of which professions these may be -- are the safest from incursions by artificial intelligence (AI). These include jobs in arts and culture, managers of all hues, and jobs in education, law, health, and nursing. Jobs that require cognitive capabilities and complex problem-solving skills will rule over attacks by bits and bytes.

It's not all bleak; while jobs that are easily replaced by automation will feel the brunt of these changes, those that need creative thinking and problem-solving may very well be helped by automation that will in turn boost productivity levels, says the study. This could reduce prices of goods and services and spur demand in a positive spin-cycle leading to a need for additional labour. In fact, the study points out that there is more net long-term job creation in low-risk professions (712,000) than job losses in high-risk ones (396,000).

Brookfield Institute arrived at these findings by primarily leveraging the study of Oxford professors Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A Osborne, who wrote a seminal paper in 2013 called The Future of Employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerization? They found that a whopping 47 percent of US employment is at high risk of being impacted by automation over the next 10 to 20 years.

Subsequently, there were several critiques of the analysis with respect to the scale of change, speed, and capabilities of technology, cost issues, and preferences of humans over machines, so the authors of the Brookfield paper also incorporated other studies such as a 2015 research report generated by McKinsey & Co that suggests comprehensive labour force transformation but not a wholesale replacement by AI.

Still, even after this melding of studies, a 42 percent high-risk finding for the Canadian workforce is hardly encouraging and not that different from the Oxford social scientists' original findings when it came to the US workforce.

As the recent Tesla imbroglio has demonstrated, there may be some time before machines can fully take over even low-end, human tasks easily but they are learning quickly and transforming industries from IT services to trucking.

Even digital journalists such as myself may soon be looking for other work if bots become any better than the ones that have allowed Associated Press to churn out 3,000 articles every quarter on earnings figures released by companies.

If Brookfield's report is anything to go by, you and I may want to think about the future of our professions and act before it's too late.

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