Job security is on the minds of many with the current state of our economy and political climate, but add the threat of artificial intelligence (AI) and there is good reason why you may be concerned for your future livelihood.
I will admit that I started out writing this piece with slight bias as I am what you might consider ‘technologically-delayed’. I don’t use an app to order coffee, I avoid self-checkout situations at all costs, I am uneasy about a future with driverless vehicles and I detest automated call support. I still use a pen sometimes and I, for the most part, prefer human contact. I typically resist technology until I’m forced to use it. But over time I have come to rely on my Roomba to vacuum, I often attend online courses in virtual classrooms, I depend on my Google Home to turn on music or adjust the thermostat, and I Google anything and everything. I still have a job because my job is people centric, but it looks very different from what it did 20 years ago.
The truth is, AI has been around for 70 years and we are now experiencing what they call the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’. AI is changing the way humans exchange and distribute value and it is predicted to spark societal transformation on a global scale.
There is nothing new about continual change. The Canadian farming industry is a perfect example. In the year of confederation Canada already had hundreds of agricultural patents for improvements of farm equipment and machinery to improve productivity. Back then around 90% of Canadians lived in rural communities (now 18.9%). A decade ago agriculture was the single most common occupation, employing 1 million Canadians and accounting for 33% of jobs in the country (now 1.8%). Today, less than 2% of Canada’s population operate farms. There are way fewer farms, but the farms that exist have greatly expanded in size. The equipment has become exceedingly efficient, albeit incredibly expensive. So, case in point: fewer farms (and operators) but farms larger in area; reduced exhausting manual labour; greater crop production, unprecedented efficiencies; but significantly fewer jobs. Yet, Canada remains one of the top agricultural exporters in the world. Is this good or bad or both? Depends on who you ask.
What’s new is the PACE of change. Think of the music industry and how quickly it has changed. How many ways in your lifetime have you gone about listening to and buying music? How different is the way that musicians and producers earn a living? Do album cover designers have the same skills now that they did 50 years ago? How many record stores exist? How about the telecommunications industry…will your grandchildren know what a land-line is? Up until a few years ago we all had one. What about a pager, a flip-phone, a car phone, a Blackberry? There will always be sales people (however, there is virtual sales) but they have to adapt with the times and learn new technologies in order to sell the products. The examples are endless, but when thinking of any industry, company, product or service consider what jobs have stayed the same (probably very few), consistently changed or been completely eradicated.
It is the pace of change that concerns the adversaries of AI the most. This pace is unprecedented and some predict AI will be the detriment of society as we know it…disrupting labour markets, displacing workers and intensifying the disparity of wealth.
Just a few months before Stephen Hawking died, he spoke at a conference and he believed that the emergence of AI could be the “worst event in the history of our civilization” unless society finds ways to control its development. Although he realized the potential of AI to help reverse damage done to the environment and its potential to eradicate poverty and disease, he felt that unless we are responsible with AI management and identify the dangers, he could foresee “powerful autonomous weapons, or new ways for the few to oppress the many. It could bring great disruption to our economy.” Similarly, according to Elon Musk, AI is a “fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization”, this coming from the CEO who clearly speaks from both sides of the fence. However, he touts a consistent message…that AI will cause widespread job losses and potentially start World War III.
Some proponents see limitless opportunity in AI and believe that even though jobs will be lost, new ones will emerge from new technologies and this will allow new opportunities for people to develop new skills and create safe and rewarding jobs. Some see AI as a great way to let technology perform the jobs that people don’t really want to and allow us to do more with less.
Bill Gates sees AI as “just the latest in technologies that allow us to produce a lot more goods and services with less labor. And overwhelmingly, over the last several hundred years, that has been great for society”. However, he acknowledges that it will be problematic for labour markets to keep up with the pace as AI develops and the key challenge will be how to figure out how to retrain workers and distribute benefits in a new economy.
Some suggest that a universal income will be the only way to sustain society when a huge portion of workers will be displaced and for those who become ‘unemployable’, mass unemployment insurance payouts won’t make sense in the new economy. This idea is already being tossed around in Canada, but here they refer to it as ‘National Basic Income’ which would guarantee a minimum income for all. A pilot project is currently underway in Ontario with the hopes that it will prove to increase food and housing security, improve stress and anxiety, mental health and healthcare and assist with the employment labour market.
My research shows that in the future it is certain that most unskilled jobs will be replaced by AI. Those are the jobs that are manual or process-driven, for example manufacturing or transportation. But AI can’t replace creativity, human interactions, team work, negotiations or people care. Occupations that require these skills will survive. The good news is that many new jobs will evolve or emerge because of AI in the future, jobs we can’t even fathom right now. It takes a whole lot of people to develop this’ machine intelligence’, in fact Canada has become a global leader in AI and has seen a 500% growth in AI job opportunities since 2015. Some say that children entering primary school today will end up working in jobs that don’t even exist right now. Just think, jobs like Social Media Manager, Uber Driver, App Developer, Cloud Computing Specialist, Driverless Car Engineer and Drone Operator didn’t even exist until recently!
I believe that most companies will have plenty of jobs to offer but they will be redesigned jobs. Savvy companies will retain their best employees and invest in reskilling or upskilling them to prepare them for the new wave of AI. There is no doubt that educational institutions, industries and governments will be forced to transform in order to prepare us for sustainability, it’s already happening. But we also need to prepare ourselves and our children for the rapid changes on the horizon.
How can you determine if you will be “technologically unemployed”?
Yes, ‘technologically unemployed’ is a new and real buzz phrase. First off, I want to point out that jobs have vanished throughout history…think: Milkman, Lamplighter, Switchboard Operator, Movie Rental Store Worker, Typesetter, Elevator Operator, etc. And we are now seeing less: Receptionists, Assembly Line Workers, Farm Workers, Store Clerks, Tram Drivers, Fast Food Attendants, etc. We book our own travel, enter our own expenses and manage our own health benefits in the name of efficiency. Jobs becoming obsolete is nothing new. Products becoming obsolete is nothing new. However, a 2017 report by KPMG forecasted that technology will perform the job equivalent of 120 million employees by 2025 (over 3 times the population of Canada). Other studies, including research from McKinsey & Company, estimate that 45 to 47% of today’s jobs are at risk of being automated.
There is an interesting website called www.willrobotstakemyjob.com where you can enter your occupation and it will provide you with your risk level, projected growth and median annual wage. It also provides a rankings list of jobs with the highest/lowest risk of being replaced by a robot. The two founders of the site have been featured in Fortune and Business Insider. I can’t verify the exact science or accuracy behind the site, but you could ask a robot if it’s legit 😉.
What you need to do right now is assess your job and your skills. Where do they fall? In the process-driven, manual, manufacturing type category? If so then start to develop new skills in the areas that will be less affected. Be open to development no matter what or you will fall behind.
What if your employer has no training and development plan? What if you are unemployed and trying to navigate this revolution? What if you’ve dedicated yourself to the same career, trade or job for decades? Or, what if you realize that you are in the unfortunate position of losing your job to a robot?
Experts suggest that lifelong learning has now become a necessity, rather than an option. Prepare yourself by developing new skills, become an expert in a certain area, keep up with news and trends, plan on investing in learning throughout your lifetime. It is said that those who are able to adopt new skills and continually learn and change with the times will be less likely to be replaced by AI. Remember the saying “survival of the fittest”?
It’s hard to predict the future, but I think it’s safe to say that yes, robots and AI will continue displace our jobs. New technologies will continue to alter our planet and our way of life. I will leave you with a quote by the Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, “I am convinced of one thing—that in the future, talent, more than capital, will represent the critical factor of production.” – Klaus Schwab.
About Wendy Ferguson
Wendy Ferguson is a Human Resources Professional and owner of Stick People Solutions (SPS), providing simple, flexible and effective solutions for complex people issues. SPS specializes in employment legislation, policy, workplace investigations and recruiting solutions. Please follow Wendy Ferguson on LinkedIn for future articles about HR in Alberta.