Saturday September 16, 2017

What Canadian workers can expect from automation

Employees work with automated systems at the Hudson's Bay Company distribution centre in Toronto.

Employees work with automated systems at the Hudson's Bay Company distribution centre in Toronto. (REUTERS/Fred Thornhill)

Listen 9:17

Automation has already had a big effect on some jobs. Think about those robots building cars now. But with the rise of practical and accessible artificial intelligence, lots of jobs previously immune to automation are seeing machines take over some of their tasks. Even some of what lawyers have traditionally done are being done with AI programs.

Creig Lamb

Creig Lamb (Brookfield Institute)

As widespread as these changes are, their effects aren't equally spread over the country's regions and industries. Creig Lamb is a policy advisor at the Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. He recently wrote a paper called Automation Across the Nation, detailing where automation will, and will not, affect Canadian workers. 

Creig says that, "places that specialize in manufacturing or specialize in oil and gas extraction, say in Alberta, are much more susceptible."  And while that would especially affect small manufacting town, big cities can also be impacted.

Potential for automation

(Brookfield Institute)

"Intuitively I would have assumed that big cities like Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, would have been at the lowest risk of being affected by automation," Creig says. "But they come somewhere in the middle. While they have a large amount of employment that is insulated from the effects of automation... they also have large sectors of their population in retail and manufacturing, so it kind of balances itself out." 

"One of the things that can potentially inhibit the negative impacts of automation is whether or not you're in a diverse labour market with the ability to absorb displaced labour," Creig says. "In a smaller market with a very homogenous economy that is heavily reliant on one single employer, the decision to automate could have much more negative impacts on workers."

Although many jobs are being impacted by automation, that doesn't necessarily mean that all these people will be out of work. "A job is comprised of a variety of tasks, and some are more susceptible to automation than others," Creig says. "So as certain job tasks become redundant or are eliminated as a result of technological change, other job tasks that are above and beyond what the technology is capable of become increasingly important. Folks that are able to supply those job tasks can actually earn more money, be in higher demand."

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