Robots are Going to Steal Millions of Jobs. Are you Screwed?

Are universities or the government going to help?

According to a report by Sunil Johal and Jordann Thirgood of the Mowat Centre, between 1.5 million and 7.5 million jobs in Canada could be disappearing in the next 10 to 15 years. While this might sound like a death sentence for the economy and a bit of a wrinkle in our plans after postsecondary, some of Canada’s education leaders have said students shouldn’t worry—as long as their equipped with the right skills.

This translates to 1.5 million on the low end, and nearly 7.5 million jobs on the high end.

After analyzing labour market studies from a variety of industrialized countries, Johal and Thirgood determined that anywhere from about 9% to 40% of Canadian jobs could be at risk to automation. This translates to 1.5 million on the low end, and nearly 7.5 million jobs on the high end.

In the last three major tech revolutions—namely, steam, electricity, and electronics—we have seen a net increase in jobs in the long run. While the dawn of the digital age saw a lot of jobs becoming obsolete, new jobs were created in the tech industry to offset these losses. So why might things be different this time around?

“Well, there’s a difference between muscle power and brain power,” Thirgood told us. In the past, manufacturing jobs and other jobs in the production sector have started to disappear because machines were created to do the heavy lifting. A lot of these workers were reabsorbed into the service sector and more “knowledge-based jobs,” she said. And the main difference that we are starting to see now, according to Thirgood, is that technology does not only exist to do the heavy lifting. “AI seems to be taking over brain power and cognitive functions in the workplace,” she added. In that case, where does human labour come in?

Thirgood then shared an example from Bridgewater Associates—the $160 billion hedge fund—who may be looking to replace some of their top management decisions with an algorithm. This is the difference. So many different kinds of jobs are going to be affected by new technology: not just the manufacturing and “muscle power” jobs, but the “brain power” jobs as well, the kinds of jobs we go to school for!

Going to university doesn’t guarantee you a career anymore. So what does this all mean for you? And how are we going to survive this?

So it is evident that the labour market is changing. According to Johal and Thirgood’s report, this means a loss of jobs overall, but maybe more crucial to note, an increase in job precarity. This means that there will be more part-time work, more temporary work, jobs that don’t offer benefits. “60% of employment growth since the mid-1990s among OECD countries has been in the form of non-standard work,” Thirgood told SLN. “It’s not your parents’ labour market anymore.” The days of staying in steady, 9-5 careers with full benefits for your whole life are long gone. Young people find themselves having to hold multiple part-time jobs just to stay afloat. Going to university doesn’t guarantee you a career anymore. So what does this all mean for you? And how are we going to survive this?

There seemed to be one fact that stuck out for every person and organization we spoke to; that a career for life is no longer an option. These new trends we are seeing in the labour market don’t necessarily mean a death sentence, but they do mean that young people have to be ready and willing to move from one job to another (maybe even one industry to another).

We asked David Lindsay, the president and CEO of the Council of Ontario Universities, about the skills that will help students succeed in these “precarious” times. “I think creativity, problem-solving, communication skills and independent thought are crucial qualities students need in order to succeed in today’s and tomorrow’s world. These are transferable skills that are not specific to one particular career path but that will help students prepare for a world that is changing quickly and requires not just knowledge but adaptability,” he told us.

 “Our universities aren’t just producing graduates who can get jobs, they’re also producing graduates who create their own jobs and jobs for other people,”

According to Lindsay, universities in Ontario, and all over Canada, are equipped with the tools to help students build these transferable skills. He also explained that there is an emphasis on innovation on university campuses. “Our universities aren’t just producing graduates who can get jobs, they’re also producing graduates who create their own jobs and jobs for other people,” he said via email correspondence.

Gareth McVicar of the University of Calgary echoed these sentiments as he described the new mindset that graduates need to be in. He explained that if young people hope to thrive in the ever-changing labour market, “it’s important for them to consider both the linear path into their degree, but also considering ways to be more innovative or think outside the box,” adding that a career path is “not always an A to Z type thing.”

For the University of Calgary’s Leadership Exchange, McVicar brings in leaders and innovators in various industries, including those who have carved out their own jobs in what can be an extremely uncertain economy. By connecting students directly with employers, UofC is helping to arm students with essential knowledge: be it knowledge of their chosen industry, of what employers are looking for, or of the overarching trends in the economy.

“Experiential learning, which is in lock-step with the Ontario government’s plan to stay abreast of the new economy, has been a core component of college programming from the beginning,”

This campus-employer connection is something that Thirgood herself mentioned as an essential piece of the puzzle moving forward. In an interview with SNL, the co-author of Working Without a Net explained that in the upcoming years, the major players in government and in education, are going to be looking at how we can best integrate employers and post-secondary institutions and make better connections. This is essential for making accurate forecasts about, “What employers need right now, what are they going to need in the next few years, and how universities, colleges and training institutions gear up for that,” she told us.

And how are they gearing up? In line with these transferable skills that everyone is talking about, we find experiential learning: learning through reflection on doing. Postsecondary institutions are all pretty on board with the idea that a more hands-on approach to learning is going to benefit students once they hit the workforce.

While this is something more recent for many universities, President and CEO of Colleges Ontario, Linda Franklin told SLN that colleges have been operating this way for years. “Experiential learning, which is in lock-step with the Ontario government’s plan to stay abreast of the new economy, has been a core component of college programming from the beginning,” she stated.

So let’s say postsecondary institutions have the tools to prepare us for the job market. Does this mean we are all going to come out of school with our dream job? That’s like saying, “Ikea sells furniture, so we’re all going to walk out with a finished book shelf.” Not gonna happen.

Universities and colleges have the bookshelves, but it’s ultimately up to us to put them together. They have the experiential learning opportunities. They offer the volunteer hours. They’ll hold the career fairs. We have to take charge and gather every piece of knowledge we can. We have to know our industry and build our skill set—and not just our industry-specific skills either. We need to prove we have the transferable skills that make us an asset in any workplace. Are you worried yet?

Overall, what today’s graduates need is a mindset that allows them to be constantly learning.

“I don’t necessarily think that students need to be worried, but I do think that it’s important for them to be informed,” McVicar said, adding that he thinks it is extremely important in this economy for students to know the realities of the industry they want to work in. For us, this means not only understanding the challenges of the industries, but what the anticipated challenges are in the future. He stressed that employers are looking for young people who are self-aware and have a deep understanding of what they bring to a company.

Overall, what today’s graduates need is a mindset that allows them to be constantly learning. We can’t be afraid to try new things, innovate,  or explore, because chances are, we won’t be in the same job our whole life. We need to be adaptable.

If Johal and Thirgood’s study can predict the future, there may not be enough jobs for all of us. So do things that have never been done before and make yourself irreplaceable.

*Opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Student Life Network or their partners.
Tiann Nantais

Tiann Nantais

Tiann is a Political Science student at the University of Guelph. She enjoys boring her friends with political news and is surprisingly smooth on the dance floor.