British Columbians need to start thinking more about the coming of their robot overlords because the jobs in our economy are more susceptible than other provinces to automation, according to a recent report.
Some 42 per cent of workers in the B.C. economy, based on the 2016 census, are employed in jobs with “a high probability of being automated,” within the next two decades, according an analysis by the Business Council of B.C.
It is almost identical to a national average of 41 per cent of workers in occupations susceptible to automation, the research found, but in B.C., those workers are concentrated in three specific sectors — retail sales, business and finance or trades and machine operators.
That has implications not just for workers in occupations likely to be automated, who should be focused on learning new skills that make them less vulnerable to replacement, but for governments that need to work on education, retraining and tax policies that help raise those skill levels.
“I think I was surprised we had so many jobs in three occupation groups,” said report author David Williams, the business council’s vice-president of policy. “Even within those groups, the types of jobs we have lend themselves more to automation.”
There are implications for businesses too, Williams said, which should be embracing such technologies to improve their productivity that ultimately helps increase wages for skilled workers, increases consumption and supports even more employment.
The prospect of automation replacing workers, through artificial intelligence and advanced robotics, is not new. Williams said there are well-known international studies that plot what is known about the capabilities of technology to replace labour.
The business council’s study, however, took that research and wrapped in data from Statistics Canada’s 2016 census to gain a local perspective on the potential for automation.
“Nobody has taken a look at what it means for British Columbia,” Williams said. “We wanted to take a very specific look at how firms and workers in British Columbia are going to be affected by these trends.”
Williams cautioned though that the report doesn’t represent a prediction of what will happen. It is more of a discussion about what could happen, given what researchers know about the technical capabilities of automation.
However, any jobs with routine, repetitive, rule-based tasks or basic social interactions can be more easily replaced using robotics and machine learning than jobs that require higher levels of manual dexterity or creative problem solving.
In construction, for instance, Williams said the modularization of building methods might mean less need for carpenters on a job site. But plumbers and electricians, who install materials with more customized components, will likely be less affected.
B.C.’s port facilities are also susceptible to automation, Williams said, due to fierce global competition that demands high levels of efficiency and low costs.
“If you look back to the 1930s and ’40s, you’d see (longshore workers) working with block-and-tackle, it was very labour intensive,” Williams said, before the containerization of cargo.
Today, however, computerized and automated systems can consolidate a lot of the work being done by operators of the gantry cranes that pluck containers off ships then the trucks and other equipment that move them around a terminal.
“You’re seeing automation play out in the maritime industry in particular,” Williams said.
Governments also need to pay attention to the adjustment costs, particularly in B.C. where a lot of the jobs susceptible to automation are in lower-skilled, lower-wage occupations and workers will bear an unequal brunt.
“People already in low-wage jobs today are facing the highest probability their jobs will be automated,” Williams said. “So they will have the least financial resources to make the change.”
The business council’s report is no portent of doom, however. Williams said businesses need to embrace the possibilities of automation.
And Williams added that their research doesn’t at all address the prospects for new classifications of jobs being created to service automated systems.
“There is no prediction here for mass unemployment,” Williams said. “We’re talking here just about the adjustment costs because total demand for labour is almost certainly going to be higher in the future because of (increased productivity) and because of new specialties emerging.”
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