Robots could take your job within 20 years, study suggests

More than 40 per cent of Canada’s labour force currently works in an industry that’s likely to become automated within 20 years, according to a report released on June 15 by a Ryerson University-affiliated think tank.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however: The report, “The Talented Mr. Robot: The impact of automation on Canada’s workforce,” by Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship policy advisor Creig Lamb, also concluded that 36 per cent of the Canadian labour force works in jobs with a low risk of automation, and that these positions are projected to produce more than 700,000 new jobs by 2024 alone.

“Overall we discovered evidence from both sides of the debate,” Lamb wrote in the report. “While these technologies can potentially threaten existing jobs, it is also important to recognize that they are also significant job creators that have the potential to improve productivity and raise overall living standards.”

To compile the report, Lamb applied some of the academic research behind the steady stream of articles that warn about our coming robot overlords to employment data from Canada’s 2011 National Household Survey, using a 2013 University of Oxford study to determine whether each job possessed a low (29 per cent or less), medium (between 30 and 69 per cent), or high (70 per cent or more) probability of automation.

“Although we know that Canadians are not immune from the effects of automation, and that technological trends will likely have enormous implications for many Canadian industries… the gap in Canadian-specific knowledge often means that we lack the tools to understand the impact of automation within our own borders,” he wrote.

What Lamb found is that the majority of high-risk positions were in office support and general administration; sales and services; transportation and distribution; or lower-skilled technical labour in sectors such as the health and science industries or manufacturing and construction – and that these represented 41.9 per cent of Canada’s current workforce.

The top five high-risk occupations were:

  • Retail salespeople, who represent more than 656,000 Canadian employees and face a 92 per cent probability of automation;
  • Administrative assistants, who represent nearly 329,000 employees and face a 96 per cent probability of automation;
  • Food counter attendants and kitchen helpers, who represent nearly 313,000 employees and face a 91.5 per cent probability of automation;
  • Cashiers, who represent nearly 309,000 employees and face a 97 per cent probability of automation; and
  • Transport truck drivers, who represent nearly 262,000 employees and face a 79 per cent probability of automation.

Jobs with a low risk of automation span arts, culture, sport, management and supervisory positions, and professional occupations in fields such as education, law, health, nursing, and science.

The bottom five, lowest-risk occupations were:

  • Retail and wholesale trade managers, who represent more than 363,000 Canadian employees and face a 20.5 per cent probability of automation;
  • Registered nurses, who represent more than 291,000 employees and face a 0.9 per cent probability of automation;
  • Elementary and kindergarten teachers, who represent more than 271,000 employees and face a 0.4 per cent probability of automation;
  • Early childhood educators and assistants, who represent nearly 188,000 employees and face a 0.7 per cent probability of automation; and
  • Secondary school teachers, who represent nearly 174,000 employees and face a 0.8 per cent probability of automation.

Meanwhile, approximately 21.6 per cent of Canadians are employed in medium-risk positions.

Lamb also calculated the number of jobs that each category was projected to produce using the Canadian Occupation Projection System (COPS), and concluded that low-risk occupations are expected to produce 712,000 net jobs between 2014 and 2024; medium-risk occupations 339,000; and high-risk occupations 396,000.

Using separate research, he also calculated that approximately 42 per cent of activities currently performed by Canadian employees could be automated using existing technology.

Looking at the data, which encompasses hundreds of jobs, Lamb notes that it’s impossible to ignore two patterns: jobs at low risk of automation are linked to higher levels of experience, higher earnings, and higher education, while jobs with a high risk of automation tend to be entry level, require less education, pay lower wages, and employ a disproportionate number of people under the age of 25.

He also noted that the average income for low-risk positions was $61,927, while the average incomes for medium- and high-risk positions were $36,294 and $33,411, respectively.

As for what Canada’s business and government leaders can learn from his research, Lamb suggests conducting further studies to determine whether high-risk occupations can adapt to technological restructuring; to identify our country’s strengths in the technological sector and ensure the people that drive it have the support they need to create the next economic revolution; and, of course, education and training.

“We are hoping this report will help Canada’s public and private sectors gain a deeper understanding of how automation impacts employment so that they can begin planning for the future,” he wrote.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Eric Emin Wood
Eric Emin Wood
Former editor of turned consultant with public relations firm Porter Novelli. When not writing for the tech industry enjoys photography, movies, travelling, the Oxford comma, and will talk your ear off about animation if you give him an opening.

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