Intelligence Gathering: Examining the impact of automation on Ontario’s workers

By Creig Lamb and Sarah Doyle
January 15, 2018

By Sean Mullin
January 12, 2018

Stubbe’s Precast Commercial Inc., near Brantford, Ont., has been a leader in the manufacturing of precast concrete for over 30 years. With help from the Ontario government, the company is investing $19.5 million into the construction of a brand new, 200,000 sq ft automated production plant to be completed in 2019. But instead of eliminating jobs, these technology investments will help the company remain competitive and expand, ultimately creating 58 new jobs, while maintaining the existing 216 positions in the company.

Automation is also creating brand new opportunities across the province. Take for example Linear Transfer Automation in Barrie, Ont., who produce linear robots for the automobile manufacturers across North America. As demand for automation technology increases, the company has grown from five employees in 7,000 sq ft to just shy of 100 employees in 45,000 sq ft in the past seven years.

Stories like these, which are positive for businesses and for workers, often get lost amidst stories of worker displacement, around which attention has tended to concentrate. Automation has become a lightning rod for policy debates in recent years. On one hand, embracing automation is an absolute necessity for many Canadian firms to remain viable and competitive, particularly as they compete with low-cost jurisdictions around the world. On the other hand, automation can be disruptive for workers and communities and increases the need for a highly skilled workforce. As artificial intelligence encroaches on a whole new set of job tasks across the income and skill spectrum, concerns about job stability and the future of work have reached a new pitch.

Amidst all this noise, policymakers are striving to strike the right balance between supporting the adoption of technologies that will help businesses grow and compete, and ensuring that workers are effectively supported through the resulting transitions.

To help equip policymakers, as well as leaders from the private and nonprofit sectors, with a clearer understanding of the potential benefits and risks of technological change, the Brookfield Institute has launched a project, supported by the Government of Ontario, to study the implications of labour-saving technologies for the province’s workers in different communities and sectors, and the supports they may need to adjust and thrive.

Why is the Brookfield Institute studying automation?

Governments, employers, labour leaders, educators and community organizations recognize that labour-saving technologies are dramatically changing the nature of work, and that new approaches may be needed to take advantage of these changes while mitigating potential negative consequences for people. However, there are major gaps in our understanding of the costs and benefits of these technologies, who will be impacted by job disruption, where they live and work, what new opportunities are available to them, and what they need to adjust effectively.

To date, research has tended to focus on the economy-wide impacts of automation. While these studies have been necessary to set the stage, they overlook how local context might influence the costs, benefits, and appropriate responses to automation. Major studies have also typically focused on labour market dynamics in the United States or other countries, limiting the applicability of their findings to Canada. Finally, considerable attention has been paid to predicting the number of jobs or tasks that might become obsolete as a result of automation. What is less clear are the opportunities automation presents to create or change jobs, increase productivity and help companies compete. Our current research aims to address some of these gaps, to better inform decision making.

This project will focus on key sectors in Ontario. It will also pave the way for further work to study the impacts of labour-saving technology and to design effective supports to help workers adjust, across Canadian communities and sectors.

How are we planning on filling these knowledge gaps?

To gain a more granular understanding of the potential impacts of automation in Ontario, we are closely examining key sectors and speaking directly to Ontario workers and employers. Overall, our research involves three primary components:

  1. First, we have convened an Expert Advisory Panel of leading industry, academic and policy experts to provide insight and guidance throughout the research process.
  2. Second, we are building on existing literature through Ontario-specific data analysis and in-depth interviews with industry and labour stakeholders.
  3. Third, we are speaking directly to workers and community stakeholders in cities and towns across Ontario.

This work began in November 2017 and will culminate in a final report in March 2018. We hope to inform the design of policies, programs and services aimed at harnessing the benefits of technological change in Ontario while helping workers adjust to disruption.

For more information, check out our Impact of Technological Change on Ontario’s Workforce project page.

As we conduct this research, we are eager to hear from workers, employers and other stakeholders across Ontario. To participate in this study, you can join one of our six public workshops, fill out our survey, or contact Creig Lamb, Senior Policy Advisor, at creig.lamb@ryerson.ca.


For media enquiries, please contact Coralie D’Souza, Director of Communications, Events + Community Relations at the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship.

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