To prepare our workforce for the future, Canada should learn from the past and test new models of education and training.
Imagine life as a young law student. You are fast approaching graduation and embarking on the gruelling search for an articling position. As the pressure mounts, you learn that you will soon be competing with a technology (powerful enough to out-diagnose trained doctors), that is now being used for legal research, and can do in seconds the work it takes trained lawyers hours to complete in the conventional way.
From this perspective, the jobless future — or, at the very least, one where the bottom rungs of the corporate ladder are missing — looks uncomfortably close. However, dire predictions of a future without work often neglect a simple fact: technology has been changing the composition of the labour force for centuries. Yet, time and time again, it helps create more jobs than it eliminates.
What history teaches us is that technology will alter the kinds of jobs available and the skills they require, and that this transition is often tumultuous for many workers. To prepare our workforce to adjust, Canada should take inspiration from the past and test new models of education and training to ensure that our youth are equipped with the skills needed to thrive in their new economic reality.
What lessons can we learn from the past to prepare for the future?
At the turn of the 20th century, Canada had a largely agricultural economy. In 1911, over 34 percent of the labour force worked in agricultural industries. By 1971, the share had declined to around 6 percent — largely because of breakthroughs in machinery. Technological advances freed up labour to perform increasingly complex tasks and enabled the high-speed growth of skilled blue-collar and white-collar work.
To prepare its labour force for the changing nature of work in the early 1900s, the United States, led by New England and the prairie states, introduced mass secondary education. This was an unprecedented feat at the time, enabling the US to exceed all industrialized countries when it came to educational attainment. As a result, many young Americans were equipped with the higher-order literacy and numeracy skills required to transition into white-collar jobs and drive economic growth in a period of fast-paced change. Workers with a secondary school education were much better off than the rest of the labour force because they earned significantly higher wages.
How will technology affect the workforce this time?
As the recent past demonstrates, for workers equipped with the right skills, the future will more than likely be bright. However, for those without the resources to obtain the right skills, the challenges that lie ahead may only become larger and more difficult to overcome.
Over the past several decades, automation has been a major driving force behind the decline of many routine, middle-income jobs, such as those of machine operators in the manufacturing sector. This has contributed to “job polarization”: the growth of high-paying, high-skilled jobs on the one hand, and low-paying, low-skilled jobs on the other.
Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics are predicted to disproportionately impact lower-income, lower-skilled workers. A recent Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship report suggests that 42 percent of the Canadian labour force is at a high risk of being affected by automation in the next 10 to 20 years. The occupations with a higher risk of being automated currently earn less and require less education, on average, than the rest of the Canadian labour force.
However, not all high-risk occupations will be lost. Jobs are made up of a variety of tasks, some more automatable than others. A recent report by McKinsey & Company showed that while AI and robotics could replace nearly 50 percent of job tasks currently performed, fewer than 5 percent of jobs are fully automatable.