Linda Nazareth, educational gapThe labour force should complement rather than battle with machines, writes Linda Nazareth.

By Linda Nazareth, October 10, 2018

We need to talk about the robots. Yes, again.

If we are formulating some idea of what the work world is going to look like in five or 10 years, we have to accept that machines will do more of the tasks now done by humans in fields from manufacturing to accounting (and yes, there are now even robot brothels popping up around the globe, including one planned for Vancouver, but we are not going to talk about that).

The good news, though, is that as much as jobs might be destroyed by the clever new technology, there is reason to believe that workers can find new roles in the remade future. The catch is that to make that work, business will have to take an active role in helping the transition.

The optimism comes from a new report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) that surveyed chief human resources officers and strategy executives across 20 developed and emerging economies. Based on their responses, the WEF found that half of all companies expect their work forces to shrink by 2022, while 40 per cent are looking for an expansion. In addition, one in four companies expect that automation will create new roles within their organizations.

If you are trying to figure out that math and come up with some idea of how many people will be displaced, it might be best to go a different way and not try to count up the jobs gained or lost. In fact, it is interesting that the WEF continues to use the word “jobs” when what they are talking about is not really jobs in the way that we have come to understand them. Sure, people will still work and be paid in future, but it will not really be within the confines of the “get a job with a company, work, get paid, repeat for 40 years” kind of model.

In the world envisioned by the HR executives, businesses will use more contractors, employ more flexible arrangements, use remote staffing and draw on workers from far-flung locations. Some of this will be great for efficiency, and possibly for workers' lifestyles as well. After all, if you can pick where you live (maybe choosing some low-cost, high-natural-beauty location) and still get paid from a company headquartered in Toronto or New York, well then, life is good. And if you want to be a contractor, then that is great, too. The issue will be for those who are not in high demand and for whom contract status, if not unemployment, is thrust upon them.

So let’s get back to the robot part of this. According to the surveyed companies, right now 71 per cent of “task hours” within firms are done by humans, while 29 per cent are done by machines. By 2022, they see a more even split, of 58 per cent done by humans and 42 by machines. Although the survey does not go out further than that, it is not hard to imagine that machines will continue to gain an edge. And that is not necessarily bad anyway. At the moment, high demand and aging populations mean that it is difficult and expensive to get someone to throw your French fries into a bag at Wendy’s. Ideally, you get a robot arm to fill the French fry bag and move humans into higher value, better paying jobs.

That is the crux of the matter: Can we get to a point where those displaced from their robot-replaced tasks are moved into other jobs, or at least other kinds of work? The answer is partly up to the companies who are doing the reorganizing. That is, although individuals clearly have to guide their own career paths, and although government can and should be part of any retraining, more than ever there is a need for business to take an active role in things. In the words of the WEF “companies need to complement their automation plans with comprehensive augmentation strategies … they must in fact invest in their human capital. There is both a moral and economic imperative to do so.”

It is an interesting notion, that of businesses consciously replacing humans with machines, and then just as consciously devising a strategy that creates new roles for the displaced individuals. It is not an easy one, either. Among the companies surveyed, there is a split between those who plan to automate and be done with it, hire some entirely new workers, train the ones they have or shift to just hiring gig workers as needed. It is very much a make-it-up-as we-go along picture for many, but perhaps everyone needs to be more strategic, for their own sake.

As the WEF and many others have noted, the future will be very much a battleground for the best and most in-demand talent, even as those not deemed to be in that category see their prospects languish. Having all players work to ensure we have the best labour force, one that complements rather than battles with the machines, should be the end-goal for everyone and one that all are engaged in creating.

Linda Nazareth is a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. Her book Work Is Not a Place: Our Lives and Our Organizations in the Post Jobs Economy will be published in November.