Atlassian paints dire future for workers in the face of automation

Mike Cannon-Brookes told a Senate inquiry that if action isn't taken by the Australian government to upskill and retrain people in the face of automation, the consequences are pretty grim for not only workers, but the future of the nation too.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

Atlassian chief Mike Cannon-Brookes has urged the Australian government to better plan for the automation era, telling a Senate inquiry on Tuesday that "hope is not a tactic".

The co-founder and co-CEO of the Australian startup darling told the committee looking into the future of work and workers that the country is faced with three major challenges, with the first requiring the upskilling and retraining of workers likely to be displaced by automation.

"We need to shift our views on education as something we do when we're young to something we do throughout our entire life," he said.

The second challenge is providing income support and other forms of transition assistance to help displaced workers find alternative employment, calling the move essential. Thirdly, Cannon-Brookes said ensuring there is enough post-disruption job creation locally should be of priority to the government.

"We need to learn from the past and focus on the upside of value creation and improved standards of living that technology will create, instead of perpetuating fear rhetoric around 'robots taking our jobs'," he added.

Must read: AI 'more dangerous than nukes': Elon Musk still firm on regulatory oversight

"Do we want to be a primary manufacturer of technology, or a consumer of it? Australia generates 1 percent of the world's GDP. To continue our relative wealth and quality of living, we need to be primary producers of 1 percent of the world's technology -- we aren't even close today."

In its submission [PDF] to the inquiry, the local arm of Google estimated that 3.5 million Australian workers are at high-risk of being displaced by automation between 2015 and 2030, and said policies providing training and assistance to keep these people in the workforce could yield economic gains worth up to AU$400 billion.

But the statistics are far from earth-shattering; the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) reported to the government in mid-2015 that more than 5 million jobs -- almost 40 percent of Australian jobs that existed at the time -- have a moderate to high likelihood of disappearing in the next 10 to 15 years, thanks to technological advancements.

Although founded in Sydney, Atlassian is currently listed on the Nasdaq after undertaking the largest ever float in the US from an Australian company in 2015.

"I'd encourage you to think of Atlassian and companies like us in the technology industry as a case study of the future in the here and now,' the co-CEO told the committee.

Echoing remarks he has made previously, Cannon-Brookes told the inquiry the nation's technology graduates are highly desired around the world; however, given the lack of a local industry, "our best ship off overseas for better opportunities".

"As a country, we want to be a net exporter of products, not a net exporter of people," he said.

In addition to teaching more STEM-related subjects at schools, Cannon-Brookes sees Australia's lack of access to experienced, global talent as the single biggest factor constraining the growth of its technology industry.

"For my view, we're thinking about skilled immigration completely backwards," he said. "We focus on overseas workers taking jobs from Australians. In high-export industries, like technology, it's just not the case."

Pointing to the country's 457 visa changes, Cannon-Brookes said the action taken by the government has "damaged Australia's reputation in the largest industry in the world".

"We said to the global tech industry, 'We're closed for business'. "The restrictions are suffocating our ability to become a leading innovation nation -- and threatening Atlassian's ability to remain headquartered [in Australia]. Our future success depends on our ability to attract the world's best tech talent, today."

According to Cannon-Brookes, to unlock the job-creating potential of tech companies in Australia, the country needs to change the way it thinks about skilled migration.

"The government should be helping local companies attract world-class employees, not close the door in their face," he said.

Cannon-Brookes also had a warning for the retail sector in the wake of tech giant Amazon gracing Australian shores in December with the launch of amazon.com.au.

"The head-in-the-sand attitude of Australian businesses scares me a lot," he added. "Let me be brutally honest here: Amazon is going to tear apart Australian retail as they did in the US.

"There are so many areas ahead of us that technology and automation will disrupt."

Related Coverage

Editorial standards