On June 15, 2016, the Brookfield Institute released their report, The Talented Mr. Robot: The impact of automation on Canada’s workforce in which they reported that 42% of Canadian jobs were at high risk of being affected by automation in the next 10 to 20 years. In particular, these five occupations, the most numerous in Canada, were identified as vulnerable:
- Retail salesperson (#1 occupation of women)
- Administrative assistant
- Food counter attendant
- Transport truck driver (#1 occupation of men)
Eighteen months have gone by since that report, and while various things have happened in economic news in Canada, perhaps the most significant is that as at the time of this writing, January 2018, Canada’s unemployment rate stands at a historically low 5.7% - the lowest since comparative records became available in 1976. On the other hand, the minimum wage has been increased substantially in some provinces in Canada. In Ontario, the minimum wage has increased over 20% to $14.00 an hour. What impact will this increase have on the sectors most vulnerable to technological change? What about other sectors, occupations, and pay grades? Retail sales people have supervisors, supervisors have store managers, store managers have regional managers, and so on.
Since HAPPEN is first and foremost an employment network, we believe that the threat of automation is a threat to occupations at all levels in many areas of industry. As such, it is incumbent on us to follow the trends and report on them, so that you are better able to plan your individual ‘income for life’ strategy. So here goes…
"We don't believe that all of these jobs will be lost. Many will be restructured, and new jobs will be created as the nature of occupations change due to the impact of technology and computerization."
Sean Mullin, Executive Director, the Brookfield Institute
When the report came out, the Executive Director of the Brookfield Institute was quoted by the CBC, and made the statement above. It recalled two things from my dim past; my early career, and my education in economics. I’ll explain…
- My first real job out of business school was in 1979, as Manager of Information Systems for Factory Carpet Outlet, a major Canadian retailer of floor covering. This company had no fewer than 30 accountants – bookkeepers for inventory, sales payroll, and accounts payable, supervisors, internal auditors, a Controller and a VP Finance, all operating on manual systems. With 20 stores at the time, there were also dozens of in-store clerks and bookkeepers keeping the paperwork straight and it was shipped in every day from across the continent in large orange canvas bags from a bank courier, long gone now. It was my job, along with a team of programmers and consultants, computerize this operation and everyone, from the Controller down was afraid of losing their jobs. Initially, they were incorrect – in truth we needed more people, to handle the duplicate streams of activity until the manual processes could be eliminated. Six years, and $3 million in computer hardware later, the accountants were gone, along with much of the mid-level bookkeepers at the stores. We had to hire new computer programmers and support staff to run a 24-hour computer operation, but bottom line, we were handling the volume of 70 stores, without the proportional increase in accounting staff.
- In pursuit of my B.A. in economics, I studied a number of historic macroeconomic thinkers. One in particular had quite a bit to say about automation - Karl Marx. He wrote his seminal work, Capital, A Critique of Political Economy in 1867, twenty years into the ‘Industrial Revolution’, a time of tremendous economic upheaval in the Europe. The textile industry was going through rapid evolution, thanks to commercially available steam power. Marx gave an example of a carpet factory (coincidentally), that employed 100 men (remember the time, ladies) and bought a piece of equipment, equal to the cost of 50 men for a year, that was able to displace half of the 100 men. He went on to make another point about how capitalists will use the annual surplus generated to expand their businesses and drive labour costs down further. But he recognized that other, new jobs would be created.
He wrote, “But, suppose, besides, that the making of the new machinery affords employment to a greater number of mechanics, can that be called compensation to the carpet-makers, thrown on the streets? At best, its construction employs fewer men that its employment displaces.” Right, Karl. Continual technological progress has only proven this point further.
Let’s get this straight. I’m not a Marxist, communist or socialist. I just thought this view rather prescient considering it’s 150 years old. Automation, disruption, and artificial intelligence will be the watchwords of the day, along with their other cohorts- robotics and deep-mind learning. We at HAPPEN will do our best to ‘follow the puck’ and report it to you. Knowing what’s HAPPENing today will be your best offense tactic to keep you marketable and aware of the latest employment opportunities.