N.B. not ready to adapt when workforce is disrupted by technology: report

New Brunswick ranks low on the list because of low levels of core skills, such as literacy, numeracy and problem solving

The good news is that robots won’t be taking over overnight

More workers are being replaced by automation, and a new report suggests New Brunswick isn't ready to handle the transition. (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

New Brunswick is the least prepared province for the disruption that technology will have on the workforce, suggests a new report on the impact of automation on Canadian labour markets.

It's not all bad news, according Rosalie Wyonch, policy analyst and author of the C.D. Howe Institute study.

New Brunswick sits in the middle of the pack among provinces at risk to see employment automated, and a transition that supersedes certain jobs or skills doesn't happen overnight.

"The good news is automation is a slow and gradual process, so there is time for the provinces to act on these risks," she said.

Reasons why

Wyonch said New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador — the two least ready provinces — rank low on the list because of their low levels of core skills, such as literacy, numeracy and problem solving.

The two provinces also have fewer citizens with advanced degrees, like a master's or PhD, who are needed to adapt technology within a company or to a specific application, Wyonch said.

"New Brunswick, when thinking about policy responses to technology and automation, should probably take a strong skill focus," she said. "And focus on core skills of literacy, numeracy and assisting the workers already in the workforce with improving their skills in being able to solve problems in a technology-rich environment."

Wyonch said policy could focus on retraining programs for existing workers, but provinces should keep a long-term view of where the labour market is headed and act accordingly.

Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta face the least risk of labour market disruption, the report concluded.

Impacted jobs

Cashier jobs are expected to be automated in the near future. (Benjamin Aubé/CBC)

The demand for skilled workers will continue to rise, Wyonch said.

Since 1987, the growth in occupations at low risk of becoming automated has outpaced the number of high-risk jobs at five times the rate. The report projects the disparity will only grow in the next decade with increasing demand for low-risk positions as high-risk jobs begin to plateau.

Jobs at risk of automation still make the majority of the workforce, however. Thirty years ago, half of Canadian workers were in high-risk occupations; in 2015 that mark is four of every 10 workers, Wyonch said.

The report projects that split to shift in favour of low-risk, high-skilled positions by 2030.

The level of training and education workers need is higher than ever.- Dennis Darby, CEO of CME

Wyonch said low-wage jobs with repetitive tasks are more susceptible to automation. For instance, she said, cashiers fall into that category.

She said trades or manual labour jobs are "relatively safe." Even if a robot could hammer a nail, she said, it may not have the ability to balance on a ladder or problem solve at the job site.

Changes in the labour market — and subsequent anxiety about disruption from technology — have existed for centuries. Wyonch said the first written record about automation fears she could find came from Aristotle.

She said transitions are often localized or industry-specific, meaning there likely won't be a sweeping change across the entire workforce at once.

Investment in training

An assembly line labourer works alongside a collaborative robot, left, on a chainsaw production line at the Stihl Inc. production plant in Virginia Beach, Va. (The Associated Press)

The CEO of Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, the country's largest industry and trade association, said it's unclear yet if automation would mean a change in the number jobs, but Dennis Darby said the roles that will exist in the industry will require higher-skilled workers than today.

Darby said the number one issue facing the employers he represents is finding skilled employees to work in a digital manufacturing environment.

"The level of training and education workers need is higher than ever," he said.

"We need to invest in training."

Darby said retraining programs could be established through a three-pronged collaboration involving Ottawa, the provinces and industry.

Wyonch said governments have already established adaptive policies.

The federal government earmarked in its 2017 budget $2.7 billion over six years for training and employment support for unemployed or underemployed Canadians.

Wyonch also noted Ottawa adapted the employment insurance program to allow people to return to school without losing their eligibility.