Imagine life as a young law student. You are fast approaching graduation and embarking on the gruelling search for an articling position. As the pressure mounts, you learn that you will soon be competing with a technology (powerful enough to out-diagnose trained doctors), that is now being used for legal research, and can do in seconds the work it takes trained lawyers hours to complete in the conventional way.
From this perspective, the jobless future — or, at the very least, one where the bottom rungs of the corporate ladder are missing — looks uncomfortably close. However, dire predictions of a future without work often neglect a simple fact: technology has been changing the composition of the labour force for centuries. Yet, time and time again, it helps create more jobs than it eliminates.
What history teaches us is that technology will alter the kinds of jobs available and the skills they require, and that this transition is often tumultuous for many workers. To prepare our workforce to adjust, Canada should take inspiration from the past and test new models of education and training to ensure that our youth are equipped with the skills needed to thrive in their new economic reality.
What lessons can we learn from the past to prepare for the future?
At the turn of the 20th century, Canada had a largely agricultural economy. In 1911, over 34 percent of the labour force worked in agricultural industries. By 1971, the share had declined to around 6 percent — largely because of breakthroughs in machinery. Technological advances freed up labour to perform increasingly complex tasks and enabled the high-speed growth of skilled blue-collar and white-collar work.
To prepare its labour force for the changing nature of work in the early 1900s, the United States, led by New England and the prairie states, introduced mass secondary education. This was an unprecedented feat at the time, enabling the US to exceed all industrialized countries when it came to educational attainment. As a result, many young Americans were equipped with the higher-order literacy and numeracy skills required to transition into white-collar jobs and drive economic growth in a period of fast-paced change. Workers with a secondary school education were much better off than the rest of the labour force because they earned significantly higher wages.
How will technology affect the workforce this time?
As the recent past demonstrates, for workers equipped with the right skills, the future will more than likely be bright. However, for those without the resources to obtain the right skills, the challenges that lie ahead may only become larger and more difficult to overcome.
Over the past several decades, automation has been a major driving force behind the decline of many routine, middle-income jobs, such as those of machine operators in the manufacturing sector. This has contributed to “job polarization”: the growth of high-paying, high-skilled jobs on the one hand, and low-paying, low-skilled jobs on the other.
Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics are predicted to disproportionately impact lower-income, lower-skilled workers. A recent Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship report suggests that 42 percent of the Canadian labour force is at a high risk of being affected by automation in the next 10 to 20 years. The occupations with a higher risk of being automated currently earn less and require less education, on average, than the rest of the Canadian labour force.
However, not all high-risk occupations will be lost. Jobs are made up of a variety of tasks, some more automatable than others. A recent report by McKinsey & Company showed that while AI and robotics could replace nearly 50 percent of job tasks currently performed, fewer than 5 percent of jobs are fully automatable.
But as technology eliminates some tasks, it also creates new opportunities and improves the productivity of and demand for higher-skilled workers who have skills above and beyond what technology is capable of performing. According to a 2016 World Economic Forum report, for example, between now and 2020, data analysts and software developers are expected to be the greatest engine of job creation, across a broad range of industries. Having these skills also means workers can demand higher wages.
Think back 10 years ago. Could anyone have anticipated the current demand for app developers? We may not know what the next big wave in technology will be, but we know the types of skills that workers will need to ride it.
How should we prepare our youth to adjust to a technologically driven future?
Youth entering the labour market will increasingly need to be equipped with a complex set of hard and soft skills, including those associated with digital literacy, entrepreneurship, collaborative problem solving and social intelligence. But even when they have these skills, Canadian youth face a number of hurdles entering the labour market. Typical approaches to education may not be enough.
Entry-level positions are at serious risk of being affected by automation, which could make it harder for youth to get the experience required for most job openings. Getting that crucial first position is already a challenge. According to a McKinsey report, even though 83 percent of Canadian education providers feel that youth are adequately prepared for the workforce, only 44 percent of youth and 34 percent of employers agree. The same study also found that nearly 40 percent of post-secondary graduates in Canada take more than three months to land their first job, and 1 in 10 take longer than a year.
Changing skill demands will also mean that millennials’ education journey will not stop after post-secondary. Youth will need to continually acquire new skills throughout their career journey. The conditions of labour are also changing: for instance, the growing gig economy, while it can provide more choice in the type and hours of work, is increasing the precariousness of employment.
Many of these challenges are particularly salient for youth facing multiple barriers to employment, or those traditionally underrepresented in the growing knowledge economy. For example, according to the latest census data, the unemployment rate for visible-minority youth aged 20-24 born and educated in Canada was 3.1 percentage points higher than that for white youth in the same group. We also know that women are underrepresented in STEM fields in Canada, and they may not be alone in this. While similar figures in Canada are limited, US statistics show a smaller share of black, Hispanic and women working in high tech sectors compared with the wider private sector.
The potential speed and magnitude of technological change make it more critical than ever to ensure that we properly prepare youth for the future of work. Failing to do so will not only have massive economic consequences but may also result in large numbers of youth losing the opportunity to realize their ambitions.
To succeed, we must identify and activate strategies to educate and integrate youth into a technologically driven labour market. This will require an ambitious and agile approach to designing, testing and scaling new approaches. In doing so, we can take inspiration from the past, when sweeping changes to education helped to meet the needs of a new economy.
No one sector can address the challenges facing Canada’s youth alone. New models for work-integrated learning, digital literacy training, rapid job-specific upskilling and other talent development initiatives will require the engagement of educators, employers, community service providers, labour organizations, philanthropists, governments and youth themselves. Canada’s youth deserve the best chance at success in a quickly shifting labour market. To give them that chance, we will need to work together.
This article is part of the The Changing Nature of Work special feature.
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