The great jobs debate over whether Canada will have too many or too few: Don Pittis

Experts insist artificial intelligence is about to steal millions of jobs, yet the Canadian goverment says we need immigrant workers. Can both be right?

Do we need high immigration to fill the jobs gap, or fewer workers due to automation?

School buses drop teens off for an event this week at Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall. Would parents be happy if robots drove the buses? Would the kids stop fighting when the robot threatened to pull over? (Don Pittis/CBC)

As both Canada and the U.S. waited to see Friday's new jobs numbers, the Canadian government seemed to be taking sides in a great jobs debate over whether we'll need more workers in future — or fewer.

Typical of the divisive era we're living in, the two views are polar opposites.

More workers needed

The Feds insist that, as the country's population ages, Canada will be in desperate need of a growing number of workers to replace retiring baby boomers, thus justifying about a million new immigrants over the next three years.

New Canadians take part in a citizenship ceremony in this 2015 file photo. The government's advisers say Canada needs more immigrants than ever to replace baby boomers leaving the workforce. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Meanwhile, several experts on the future of work are equally insistent that jobs are about to start disappearing. They claim machines controlled by powerful new forms of artificial intelligence are about to steal anywhere from one third to one half of jobs.

Today's employment data came down on the side of Canada's immigration department, with almost 90,000 full-time jobs created. The U.S. posted similarly solid numbers, after people went back to work in October following summer hurricane damage.

Choose your numbers

One month's jobs numbers won't tell us much about the long term trend, although, at its most basic level, the math should be simple. The hard part is deciding which numbers to use.

"Five million Canadians are set to retire by 2035 and we have fewer people working to support seniors and retirees," said Canada's Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen this week.

Hussen laid out the math. In 1971, there were 6.6 people of working age for each senior, Hussen said. But by 2012, that ratio had gone to 4.2 workers for each senior, and projections show it will be a ratio 2 to 1 by 2036.

The real question is how many of those support workers will need to be replaced. Experts say robots are coming for many of the jobs currently done by humans.

Robots pose fundamental economic threat

This week, Horizons ETFs Management Canada launched the world's first global exchange traded fund managed completely by artificial intelligence on the Toronto Stock Exchange, prompting the business news service Bloomberg to release a video titled Robots Are Coming for Jobs on Wall Street.

An article in the latest issue of Mother Jones titled You Will Lose Your Job to a Robot — and Sooner Than You Think, predicts half of jobs in industrialized, capitalist countries will be gone in 20 years.

"For the vast majority of jobs, work as we know it will come steadily to an end between about 2025 and 2060," says the article.

That's no surprise to Silicon Valley entrepreneur and futurist Martin Ford, author of Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future. He did a TED talk on the subject earlier this year, and predicts that artificial intelligence will create joblessness across all industries.

Ford's biggest worry is something that will kick in long before AI takes all the jobs. His concern is that as unemployment begins to rise, we will lose not just jobs, but also consumers with money to spend.

"We'll face a fundamental threat to the market economy," says Ford.

But if you thought futurologists were all on the same side on the robot issue, you would be wrong. A fun story in Wired magazine this week asks the question: "Who's ready to put their kids on a self-driving school bus?"

Oddly, I'd had a similar thought myself before seeing the Wired report, leading me to snap the photo at the top of this story.

Yes, companies like Waymo and Tesla really are on the verge of giving us trucks and taxis that can operate on public roads without a human driver. That might have saved lives on Ontario's highway 400 this week.

But watching the seen-it-all school bus drivers ushering their boisterous charges off in front of Roy Thomson Hall, I wondered whether out-of-control students would listen to a robot driver if it yelled at them to stop throwing sandwiches or threatened to pull over if they didn't stop fighting.

Despite plenty of science fiction stories about machines that teach, it's hard to imagine humans being completely phased out at any level of education, from pre-school to post-graduate, even 60 years from now. That is, if we don't want to turn the next generation into soulless automatons.

Certainly stories this week from across the country about special needs kids not getting enough human attention reminds us we could do with more teachers, not fewer. As with all the other human services society could use, from more massages to more physiotherapy and better care of the elderly, the problem is not finding the need, but finding the money to pay for it.

Job quality matters

And this is the issue for the million of immigrants that Canada will be absorbing over next three years.

If well-paying Wall Street jobs, mortgage broker jobs, and human resources jobs, as well as many other kinds of work are already disappearing, we must seriously think about what kinds of employment there will be for a million new immigrants, especially those without high-level skills and Canadian language proficiency.

As we see in each month's unemployment figures, the absolute number of jobs is often less important than the quality of those jobs. It will do Canada no favours to take a million immigrants and toss them into an economy divided by stark inequality.

If the only jobs available to a lower-skilled immigrants are as menial as making up beds in a hotel or caregiving at minimum wage, they won't generate nearly enough economic clout to support 5 million newly retired Canadians in the style to which they've grown accustomed.

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Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.