Domo Arigato Mr. Roboto: Automation and the Future of Jobs

July 11, 2016
Kristine St-Laurent

The way we work is changing. Many traditional jobs that developed over the last century are at high risk of being automated within the next 10 to 20 years. Some recent research suggests nearly 42% of the Canadian labour force may be affected in this way by 2035. The same percentage, 42%, also applies to the proportion of “tasks” performed today by paid employees that could be automated using existing technologies.

Complementary data from the United States helps to illuminate the transformation of the job market. Beyond the decline of routine manual skills (for example, duties performed on an assembly line), some routine cognitive skills are also being replaced by technology, with much more of this kind of displacement likely to occur in the years ahead.

Job Growth in the US, Percent Change Since 2001, 12-month Moving Average

While work in traditional occupations will not be entirely replaced by machines, the shift towards automation undoubtedly presages a significant restructuring of the labour market. Of particular concern, the majority of individuals who hold positions at risk of automation are both less educated and earn less than the rest of the Canadian workforce. The top five jobs at greatest risk of automation are:[1]

  1. Retail salespersons
  2. Administrative assistants
  3. Food counter attendants
  4. Cashiers
  5. Transport truck drivers

In contrast, jobs requiring non-routine cognitive skills that are complemented by computers—not replaced by them—are on the rise. Employers increasingly are looking for employees with a range of competencies such as critical thinking, self-regulation, collaboration, and communication, while placing less emphasis on content expertise. Occupations at lowest risk of being affected by automation, most of which feature above average levels of earnings and education, are projected to account for more than 700,000 new jobs in Canada by 2024.[2] The five jobs at lowest risk of automation are:

  1. Retail and wholesale trade managers
  2. Registered nurses
  3. Elementary and kindergarten teachers
  4. Early childhood educators
  5. Secondary school teachers

High-Level Canadian Occupations and Probability of Being Affected by Automation

Source: National Household Survey 2011. Frey and Osborne (2013), BII + E Analysis.

The rapid increase of non-routine jobs points to the necessity of having a well-educated and suitably trained labour force. A skilled workforce will be able to adapt to the demands of a quickly changing job market. For decision-makers, a focus on proactively training and upskilling the workforce should be a priority to ensure that the Canadian labour force is keeping pace with technological advancements.

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