Technology-driven automation has been one of the most impactful economic forces of the past century. Today, as Artificial Intelligence (AI)-powered solutions like Amelia automate complex cognitive tasks, more disruption almost certainly lies ahead, and Canada will be no exception.
According to a recent RBC research paper, AI technologies and other forms of automation will affect 50% of Canadian jobs during the next decade, but that doesn’t mean there will be a lack of employment opportunities. The paper predicts that technology will create 2.4 million new jobs by 2021. However, these new roles will require a very different set of skills than the ones they replaced. As we prepare for the next great economic paradigm shift, it would be instructive to examine how past technological changes have impacted and benefited Canadian workers.
The Great Manufacturing Transformation
While manufacturing is — and will continue to be — a major part of the Canadian labour force, its prominence has diminished in recent decades. A study from the independent non-profit Center for the Study of Living Standards (CSLS) found that the total number of manufacturing jobs in Canada declined by 128,000 between 1976 and 2014, resulting in a drop from 19.09% of the total workforce to 9.7%.
While some of this loss is due to outsourcing overseas, automation has been a major change agent as well – this is showcased by the fact that manufacturing in Canada is arguably more productive than ever. As the authors of a RBC research paper note, “although the manufacturing sector makes up a significantly smaller share of the Canadian economy than in the past, the amount of manufactured goods produced per-person is still much higher than it used to be.”
“The result is that increasingly fewer production resources (e.g. workers) are needed to produce the same or more manufactured output,” the authors state. In addition, according to the RBC, the level of manufacturing output per-person in Canada in 2015 “[was approx.] 70% higher than in the 1960s.”
While automation has allowed companies to amplify productivity with fewer humans, that doesn’t mean the Canadian workforce has been pushed aside. In fact, they’ve become more valuable than ever — just not necessarily in manufacturing.
The CSLS paper states that Canada added more than eight million new jobs between 1976 and 2014, with the largest gains being found in the service sector (the “professional, scientific and technical services” sector alone grew by an astounding 442% over that period). Furthermore, Canada’s unemployment rate is as low as it has been since the mid-1970s (5.8% as of July 2018). This shows that while automation makes some jobs obsolete, it opens new opportunities as well.
As manufacturing jobs were lost to automation during the past several decades, Canadian workers necessarily (and successfully) repositioned themselves to function in the new economy. And now, as Canada enters into to a new technological era powered by AI, they will need to be just as adaptive and flexible.
Adapting to the New Era
The RBC states that the Canadian workforce will need to be more digitally literate (that is, not just knowing how to code, but a general familiarity with all kinds of digital systems), and combine this literacy with uniquely human skills that can’t be replicated by machines.
One way to frame the AI revolution is by looking at the opportunities that arise when workers hand routine (and frankly, boring) tasks over to digital solutions like Amelia or an autonomic platform such as 1Desk. When these systems handle regimented, low-level tasks, human workers are free to engage in creative problem solving and “soft skills” (e.g. empathy and negotiation).
For example, when AI systems are used to automate routine IT tasks (e.g. password resets, guest Wi-Fi access, ticket inquiries, etc.), that doesn’t necessarily make IT workers obsolete, but their roles will necessarily change — so long as they’re willing to do so. IT workers who previously were weighed down with low-value tasks — which could account up to a third of their workload according to a report from Quocirca and IPsoft — can invest their time and skills in new areas (e.g. installing IoT solutions to automate facilities, negotiating with vendors, or communicating complex technical issues to non-technical staff).
Not only can Canadian businesses be more productive thanks to automation, but human employees can spend their time on meaningful activities instead of repetitive, routine procedures.
Canadians have successfully navigated technically-driven economic transformations in the past, and if workers apply the same adaptive strategies to acquire new skills in the age of AI, they’ll not only survive the coming changes, but thrive as well.