While it is unclear how fast machines will take away people’s jobs, how many they’ll take and which ones, it is clear that the shift towards the machines is ongoing and has been for some time.
And amidst the chaos of that shift is concern for workers and businesses.
“(They’re) concerned that there might be less support for technology, development and adoption, and they’re worried that they’re going to go out of business,” Sarah Doyle, director of policy and research at Ryerson University’s Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, said. “And if they aren’t adapting to new technologies that those companies may not be able to employ anybody because they won’t be competitive anymore.”
Another concern is that the talent needs are changing, Doyle told a meeting held in Sudbury on Thursday.
“They need people that can work with computers, with machinery and they’re not seeing, necessarily, that the education and training world is helping people gain the types of skills that employers need,” Doyle said. “But in some cases that’s changing. Colleges, I think, are ahead of the curve in terms of understanding employer need.”
Ryerson University’s Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship is conducting a series of public engagement sessions, entitled ‘Robot Talks’, including the one held in Sudbury on Thursday at the YMCA Employment Services.
The goal of these engagement sessions is to better understand the impacts of technological change on Ontario’s workforce. A component of the research is focused specifically on how Ontario workers are currently responding to job automation, and how this picture changes across sectors and communities.
The goal of these conversations is to not only understand how Ontario workers are adapting to the changing nature of work, but also the supports they need to adjust.
“When we talk to people, workers, it varies,” Doyle said of people’s reaction to the increased technology in our lives. “When people think of these technologies from the perspective of the consumer, often times they like the ease of automatic checkouts in grocery stores and other times they look at those things and, even as a consumer, they say ‘that’s taking a job away from my neighbour. I’m not going to use it.'”
The advancement of technology, it can be argued, started with the introduction of the radio and television.
To help better prepare for the never-ending shift towards the machines, Doyle said there’s a need for more agile training programs that are quicker, fit people’s schedules and are focused on giving people the skills they need to be of use in the jobs that employers are trying to fill.
“So recruiting more people, more women, for instance, into the trades, would be a really good place to start,” Doyle said. “But we also have to be aware that retraining won’t be an option for everyone. If somebody is maybe closer to retirement, more advanced in their career, and that job is potentially changing in a way they don’t feel they’re able to change fast enough.”
That is exactly a concern of retired teacher John Gaul, a concerned Sudbury citizen, who took part in Thursday’s public engagement.
“Because this AI (artificial intelligence) has the potential to come on so quickly because it’s such a cost advantage for corporations … it’s happening now,” Gaul, 70, said, “I feel sorry for people who would be maybe 10 or 15 years away from retirement and all of a sudden their job is going to disappear. They don’t have a chance. It’s very difficult to pull yourself back from that.”
He also worries about the post-secondary students.
“You come out of college, you’ve been told all of your life to get a good education, and then they land up with waiting tables. I see a lot of unemployment. Whenever I go to a restaurant, I assume that the person who is going to waiting on me, they have a B.A. or maybe more than I have. It makes me sad. It’s a sense of sadness.
“Take my age now and subtract 50 years and now I’m going out into the job market, I would have been terrified,” Gaul added. “What would I have to look forward to?”
Gaul said some of Thursday’s discussion centered on ways to help Sudbury deal with the push towards the machines, including getting local entrepreneurs to mentor more youth, and to value the local economy more.
“Sudbury has been largely a mining town and those mining companies have been multinationals,” Gaul said. “I think that what people have to start to realize now is we may not have a multinational saviour showing up in Sudbury. And if it’s going to be mining, we know they’re going to automate until there’s no one underground except machines.”
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