The artificial intelligence (AI) revolution has begun, and it’s going to take all of us — government, businesses and employees — to steer through the resulting workforce disruption.

More than just helping our kids avoid jobs that machines will take over in the future — from driving trucks and reading X-rays to picking stocks and balancing the books — we need to look at ways of retraining the millions of adults who will be displaced by machines and get them back doing meaningful, relevant work.

Change is happening so fast that waves of today’s professionals — educated, established, many in mid-career — may see their jobs swept away with the technological tide. These white-collar workers with six-figure lifestyles, long the backbone of the knowledge economy, face what the World Economic Forum calls the fourth industrial revolution. What happens when their jobs disappear? What do they do? If you’ve worked in a field for even five years, transition can be hard. With a mortgage and family, who can afford the luxury of going back to school to learn to code? How many are really equipped to launch a startup?

The reality is, employment in Canada will go down before it comes back up, as AI continues to perform repetitive, predictable tasks more quickly and cheaply than humans. There will be casualties in corporate corridors once deemed bulletproof.

Suddenly, adult retraining has become a hot topic.

So yes, do run more STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) programs in schools. Push classroom curricula that promote 21st-century skills — creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and communication  — that help us adapt to change. Keep embedding more innovative methodologies into ivory tower learning. Start more programs to teach young people to think like entrepreneurs.

But we need these initiatives for adults as well, so we can set the stage for change and manage the downturn, even if it is short-term. Government must craft policies that incentivize employers and employees to learn and adapt to different work environments. Companies must offer retraining, and employees must be willing to step up.

The recent federal budget was a good first policy step. Ottawa pledged to make Canada’s employment insurance system flexible enough that laid-off workers can keep their benefits even if they go back to school for retraining and take out a student loan. The new Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence, with funding from Ottawa and to be housed at MaRS, Queen’s Park and a host of blue-chip corporations, will, along with other new AI hubs in Montreal and Edmonton, help Canada build its AI chops.

Employers also have signalled they’re willing to retrain workers. Employers surveyed for the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Future of Jobs report said they prefer to retrain workers than lay them off. This is heartening, given that the same group has warned that up to 7 million jobs worldwide could be lost to automation over the next five years. Companies are already starting to take a proactive approach, embracing new employee training apps such as Axonify, Horizn and ACTO. But more is needed.

Employees themselves must lose their fear of change. We now live in an era in which people will likely have to retrain two or three times during their careers, not just learn a new task in their field. It’s about reskilling and adapting to what may be new workplace cultures and possibly new jobs.

Whether you’re being pulled off an assembly line or out of your executive suite, the real survival skill is our ability to adapt to change. Too often the conversation focuses on being technologically savvy. We need to talk more about the human skills of managing change and adapting to new work cultures, because these skills will make us nimble enough to survive the coming AI disruption.

The shock waves can already be felt. The New York Times recently reported that the largest fund company in the world, BlackRock, will restructure because of machines. Seven of its 53 elite “stock pickers” and 36 more fund-related employees are leaving the firm because it plans to rely more on algorithms than human aptitude.

And at a recent gathering, 140 AI experts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology presented a startling scenario of the changes to come, predicting that half the trucks on the road today will drive themselves within 15 years, throwing a staggering 1.75 million truck drivers out of work. And, according to their predictions, reported in Wired magazine, half the people who now analyze medical records will have been replaced by AI within 9 years. By the following year, they said, 95 percent of air traffic control jobs will be done by robots. And in less than 25 years, robots will perform more than half of all surgeries and do most management tasks at the majority of Fortune 500 companies.

How Canada handles this scale of job change will have an impact on families, communities and the economy. Some are calling for a basic guaranteed minimum income to prevent social chaos caused by widespread unemployment. Bill Gates has proposed the notion of taxing robots to replace the revenue lost to governments from a shrinking human labour force.

One thing is certain, the policies we develop need to go beyond addressing how to train young workers for the jobs of tomorrow. We must create policy that addresses the waves of adults who are at risk of losing their jobs to the AI revolution. More than just beefing up our existing employment services, we need policies that promote life-long learning and more incentives for businesses to retrain staff rather than hiring new employees.

Some countries are already looking at ways of keeping their adult workers employed. For example, in Singapore, through the SkillsFuture movement, the government gathers information from employers about the changes they predict over the next three to five years and the skills workers will need to have. Then they provide all citizens aged 25 and older with a cash credit, enabling them to take approved training courses that will keep them skilled up and relevant as the industry needs change. And in the UK, programs like UnionLearn have found success in getting union representatives to advise workers about training options and liaise with employers on workers’ requests for training.

These are the policy conversations we need to be having in Canada now. How we weather the coming AI revolution will depend on it.

This article is part of the The Changing Nature of Work special feature.


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Krista Jones
Krista Jones is the managing director of Work and Learning at MaRS. She has been a passionate innovator and builder of technology-based businesses for over 25 years, and has personally advised and been actively involved in over 200 startups.

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