My bank machine just wished me a happy birthday. It wasn’t the exact day but it asked me: Did you think we would forget that your birthday is this month?
This struck me as just one more example of automation taking over what people used to do. No biological being had yet wished me a happy birthday.
Not only in our social lives but also in the work world, more and more machines are taking over what people used to do and get paid for.
Retail sales are just one example. Until recently, retail offered many jobs for those with few specialized skills and not much education.
Now an ever-growing proportion of retail purchases are made online, with the products coming from warehouses that are staffed more and more by robots. Products are still delivered in a vehicle with a human driver, but we can already see driverless vehicles and drones taking over that function. A very large number of clerical and warehouse positions are disappearing.
It’s not only lower-skilled service jobs like retail that are vanishing. In manufacturing, the blue collar worker is losing out to the steel collar worker: a robot. For decades, it’s been possible to produce clothing in factories without a single sewing machine operator. The practice hasn’t yet become widespread because many countries still offer plenty of relatively cheap labour. Now a combination of less expensive automation and fewer young people willing to work cheap will increase the number of almost workerless manufacturing plants.
Even if high trade barriers bring manufacturing back to the United States, last century’s factory jobs won’t return. Today’s technologies, such as additive manufacturing (formerly called 3D printing), need smaller numbers of highly skilled workers. In 2000, the U.S. employed 400,000 workers to produce steel. Now, it employs 80,000 workers for a higher level of output.
There will be and are many new jobs that didn’t exist a few years ago – app developer, drone operator and manager of social media represent just the start. In the United States, there are over two million vacant positions in applied science and data analysis, and this number is rising rapidly. Far from lacking jobs, many nations face serious labour shortages.
The problem is that these jobs all require high levels of education and skills that many unemployed and under-employed people don’t have.
It’s work for the less educated and unskilled that’s disappearing.
The solution is obvious: Provide the population with more and better education, focused on coming labour market needs. Some countries, like South Korea and Singapore, have already started doing this. They’re increasing high school completion rates, working with industry to ensure that all graduates will meet their on-going needs and making sure that continuous learning is available for adults who require it.
However, most countries – including Canada and the U.S. – aren’t doing nearly enough to retool their human workforce. High school is a basic minimum for all. STEM (science , technology, engineering and math) must be a larger component of education and training for just about everybody.
Yet our entire education system is plagued with inertia. Far too many teachers and professors are barely aware of the scale of the changes needed. In fact, those same instructors lack the 21st century skills and abilities that their students require.
Can we raise the competency level of an entire population? We’ve grown up believing that only certain bright people can do math and engineering. Now we’re saying that just about everyone has to have these skills.
But such dramatic educational shifts have happened before.
In the Middle Ages, well over 90 per cent of the population was unschooled and illiterate. A few priests could read and write. Others, including powerful business and political leaders, couldn’t. In a simple agricultural society, reading and writing were unnecessary and, it was thought, too difficult or impossible for most.
Then came the industrial revolution. It needed a workforce that had basic literacy and numeracy. Schools appeared and very soon, reading and writing were not seen as something that only a special few should or could do.
Now we need to take the next giant step forward with our educational system. Fortunately, we have the tools to do it. A whole generation has grown up learning to go to Google when they don’t know something or how to do something. Online learning can be used in addition to or even instead of the traditional educational system for people to learn how to do the new jobs that are available.
It will require a new focus. People will have to take more responsibility for finding out what they need to learn and learning it. Sitting in a classroom and getting a piece of paper will no longer guarantee you’re job ready.
However, there’s one very important thing that our traditional education system can still do. It can bring today’s young people and their parents up to speed on the new work realities and teach them how to engage in the continuous lifelong learning that will provide them with challenging, well-paid work.
They may work alongside robots but, with more education and more developed abilities, they’ll no longer have to do the boring work that a robot can do.
Troy Media columnist Roslyn Kunin is a consulting economist and speaker.