Professional jobs at risk from robotics and automation: Govt

Robotics and automation could put well over half a million jobs in professions such as bookkeeping, accounting, and stenography at risk for the year ending 2014, according to the Department of Industry's latest report.
Written by Leon Spencer, Contributor

The Australian Industry Report 2013-14 (PDF) has forecast that robots and automation could displace more than 500,000 jobs in high-skilled industries such as accounting and finance for the year ending 2014.

The report, published on Wednesday by the Department of Industry and Chief Economist Mark Cully, suggested that some of the skilled, predominantly white-collar jobs most at risk from robotics and automation include those in bookkeeping, auditing, and payroll operations.

"The challenges presented by more automation are not limited to low-skilled positions, as robots are increasingly replicating the tasks of medium- and high-skilled workers," the report said. "The silver lining is that higher productivity will eventually deliver cheaper goods and higher disposable incomes, as it did during the industrial revolution."

The report suggested that far from hampering the local jobs landscape for the long-term future, the increase in robotics and automation would result in new skilled job areas and opportunities, and other industry advantages.

"The comparative advantages of being human -- the ability to solve problems intuitively, improvise spontaneously, and act creatively -- as well as the unlimited needs and wants of humans suggest that the displacement of jobs due to automation is unlikely to be long term," it said. "Automation will allow for new technologies to develop, and allow workers to utilise those comparative advantages in ways that are currently unimaginable."

The report said that job losses over the last decade in manufacturing, agriculture, forestry and fishing, information, media, and telecommunications -- all industries that have been heavily affected by automation in previous years -- have been offset by more than 1 million job gains in higher-paying industries.

In the report's foreword, Scully talked up Australia's ability to adapt to such disruptive forces in the local industry, saying, "Australia will continue to be exposed to economic and demographic forces, and we must therefore continue to adapt. It's the one certainty we have in a world of change."

However, Scully's optimism stands in contrast to the report's assertion that more and more high-skilled and graduate jobs in Australia are being supplanted by robots, automation, and other innovative technology.

"The challenges presented by increasing automation are not limited to low-skilled positions," the report said. "One of the at-risk jobs identified in the study are pharmacists: 78.6 percent of pharmacists in Australia have a bachelor's degree, and 15.4 percent have post-graduate qualifications, making it one of the most highly educated occupations in the nation. A tertiary education therefore does not guarantee safeguard against automation."

Jobs most at risk of being automated, 1993-94, and 2013-2014
(Image: Department of Industry)

A key ongoing factor driving trends in the demand for particular occupations is automation, according to the report, which has driven falling demand for some occupations and increasing demand for others.

Today, there are entire factories assembling intricate and specialised devices without human intervention. Foxconn, China's largest private employer, began replacing 1 million workers with robots in 2013.

"At first, it was considered that low-skilled employment would be more affected by the introduction of machinery. But recent research suggests being low skilled does not necessarily mean that your job will be replaced by robotics," it said.

Despite immediate job losses in certain industries due to new technology, the report indicated that automation and robotics would lead to higher productivity, and would eventually deliver cheaper goods and higher disposable incomes for Australians.

"There is potential to benefit from these productivity gains, even if the temporary adjustments may be painful," it said. "Technological change has driven structural change across the economy in a number of ways.

"Improvements to robotics, for example, have increased the range of occupations which can be automated, while improved communications and data transfer technologies have facilitated transactions over great distances."

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