Alberta well-positioned to deal with job losses from automation: study

Alberta is tied for second place with British Columbia, and behind Ontario in a detailed study by the C.D. Howe institute examining if provincial economies area prepared to adapt to a changing labour economy driven by increasing automation .

Jobs such cashiers, data entry clerks and assembly line workers are those most at risk, according to C.D. Howe

A robotic arm helps manufacture sinks at Ying Ao Kitchen Utensils in Foshan, China. The company replaced 256 workers with nine of the robotic machines in 2016. (CBC)

Alberta is tied for second place with British Columbia, and behind Ontario, in a study examining how well provincial economies will deal with automation.

The detailed study by the C.D. Howe Institute examined whether provinces are prepared to adapt to a changing labour economy.

C.D. Howe policy analyst Rosalie Wyonch found that while automation and technology provide a great economic opportunity, they also risk "igniting economic and political tensions as some businesses fail and some people lose their jobs."

Wyonch said Alberta is ranked above the Canadian average and is doing "relatively well," by making sure it maintains a high standard for literacy and numeracy and expands into digital problem-solving.

'Alberta should keep doing what it's doing'

Where Alberta is at risk, said Wyonch, is that it employs a high percentage of people in jobs that could be automated. She pointed to jobs such as cashiers, data entry clerks and assembly line workers, which require routine tasks as those at risk.

"If there's no jobs for those people to move into, then that's where we would see the disruption," she said.

"On the whole, I think Alberta should keep doing what it's doing and just make sure they keep the core fundamentals strong."

Driverless truck safety 'very good,' says union

An example of automation that's currently playing out is in the oilsands, where Suncor Energy is continuing to test an automated haulage system for use in mining operations.

The energy giant began the pilot project in 2016 using six autonomous trucks in a controlled section of its operations near Fort McMurray.

Since then, Suncor spokesperson Erin Rees said the evaluation has increased from six to nine trucks.

'It’s a technology we’re going to have to work with somehow,' says Ken Smith, who admits Suncor's autonomous trucks are testing well. (Ken Smith)

Ken Smith, president of Unifor 707A, which represents 3,000 members at the Suncor site, admitted the automated trucks "are testing well."

"Their safety performance is very good," said Smith.

"I'd like to be able to sit here and tell you that they're a flawed technology. I would love to be able to say that, but the trucks are working well," he said.

The large haul trucks have been running year round, even during spring breakup when driving conditions are "absolutely horrendous," he said.

But Smith said the driverless trucks are only operating on rigorously maintained roads, compared to the choppy surfaces his members drive.

"Our drivers will tell you the autonomous haul trucks are driving on table tops," he said, comparing the soft roads workers drive as "driving on top of a chocolate cake."

Smith said the chances are low that many of his members will be able to keep their well-paid, full-time jobs as drivers in the future.

"It's a technology we're going to have to work with somehow," he said. "It's a challenge."

Threat to workers

Smith has his eye on Suncor's new Fort Hills site, which he said has been specifically designed to use autonomous trucks. He said a series of other industries are closely eyeing the autonomous system, such as urban transportation and long-haul trucking.

"It's probably the biggest threat to a Canadian worker in ... forever," he said.

He's urging companies and the government to invest in sustainable job creation to provide long-term employment, but knows that it's a "tough nut to crack."

"Our workers will build rainbows if there's money in it," said Smith. "We just want to work."

While the Alberta government doesn't have a department devoted to assessing the impact of automation, Alberta Labour spokesperson Andrew Hanon said in an email the government is aware of the changing nature of employment.

Hanon said Alberta Labour has "invested in a range of workplace skills and training programs" to help Albertans get back to work or to find new jobs.

Alberta Transportation spokesperson Wayne Wood said in an email there are a number of automated vehicle pilot projects underway in Alberta, and the department is currently developing a "regulatory framework so that autonomous vehicle testing in Alberta can be done safely and effectively."

Wyonch said regulations must be created to allow for "experimentation and innovation" within industry to avoid falling behind.

She said that while Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia are the most prepared, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador and Saskatchewan are the most susceptible to disruption from automation.