Your role in a brave new world

By Diana Clement

The fourth industrial revolution is upon us but that doesn't mean jobs are going to dry up, in fact there may be more than ever
Experts say though some traditional jobs may disappear, others will be created by new technology.
Experts say though some traditional jobs may disappear, others will be created by new technology.

The march of technology will bring more jobs, not fewer, says Sharon Davies, managing director of recruitment solutions company Talent Propeller.

Davies is one of a number of commentators who see a positive future for work in New Zealand, rather than doom and gloom.

Whenever technology is introduced, society benefits and the number of available jobs tends to increase rather than decline, she argues.

"With the introduction of any new technology, there does tend to be a backlash and some angst as people fear their jobs will be taken by machines and they will no longer have a meaningful contribution to make to society.

"However, over the course of hundreds of years, this notion has proven to be completely unfounded."

The fourth industrial revolution is defined by the changes happening due to technologies such as the cloud, inexpensive artificial intelligence, data analytics, mobile computing and the automation of ever more tasks including higher order ones such as accounting and journalism.

Though the machines of the first industrial revolution from 1760 to 1820 were seen by the Luddite movement as responsible for job losses, the reality was that more work was created, says Davies who cites the book Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt.

"The introduction of Arkwright's spinning jenny in 1760 led to an increase in the number of people employed in stocking manufacture, for example, by 4400 per cent," she says.

The second industrial revolution involved the introduction of electricity and the third saw the widespread use of electronics and information technology to accelerate production.

In August, Professor David Coats of the Centre for Sustainable Work and Employment Futures at the University of Leicester, pointed out in a keynote speech to New Zealand's Future of Work Commission that we have been warned in every decade of the 20th century "the machines are coming to get us". Reality didn't match the fear.

Dr David Brougham, senior lecturer at Massey University's School of Management says opinion is divided on whether there will be more or fewer jobs. Driverless cars, buses and trucks, Brougham says, are often cited as an example of how jobs could be dramatically affected by technological advancements, but the effect hasn't yet been felt.

"Driverless cars always seem to be 'next year, next year, next year'. They have been saying that for some time. But as time goes on I am (becoming) a little bit more optimistic."

Nonetheless Brougham sees a capability for many jobs to be taken in a short time. "If we had one or two of those technologies (such as driverless cars) come on board there would be higher unemployment rates in the short term over one to five years.

Unfortunately, says Dr Stephen Blumenfeld, director at the Centre for Labour, Employment and Work, Victoria University of Wellington, that short term impact can have lasting implications for those who due to age or finances can't retrain. For some it will mean no more paid work for life.

Many people can't afford to take time out to go back to university or other training and Blumenfeld would like to see the Government fund more educational opportunities for all New Zealanders.

His recent research looks into how Kiwis perceive their future job and career.

"We have found people are more optimistic about the future," he says. "People don't think their job will be affected by an algorithm, robotics, or artificial intelligence or (that) they will have to work in a new industry."

A survey for the research found that 87.5 per cent of respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement "Smart technology, artificial intelligence, robotics or algorithms could take my job".

"It was interesting that those who most strongly denied the possibility of a machine doing their job were often from the sectors most at risk - checkout operators, drivers and analysts," says Brougham.

"These are all areas where we can already see technology having an impact."

It's not just massive computing power that offers a threat. Apps could replace some jobs. But others metamorphise. Brougham cites the example of the Xero accounting software that has changed the job of accountants, though not put them out of business.

Davies argues that though some roles will be swallowed by technology, there are often new roles in IT and customer service. She cites the numbers of customer service people employed by new technology firms such as Google.

One of the most commonly cited reports about the future of work is the University of Oxford's report: The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?

It predicts jobs in transport, logistics, office and administrative support, are at "high risk" of automation.

Although bottlenecks are stopping some jobs being automated, big data will help overcome the obstacles, study authors Michael Osborne and Carl Benedikt Frey said. They looked at 700 detailed occupation types and concluded that low-skilled workers whose jobs will become automated will need to move to tasks that require creative and social intelligence. But to do so they will need to adapt and learn new skills.

The introduction of technology to all aspects of our work and personal lives has resulted in the emergence of jobs our parents wouldn't have recognised, Davies points out.

Computing jobs have risen from almost nowhere a generation ago and industrialised nations such as the US have a record number of positions available, many of which can't be filled, thanks to skills evolving faster than the rate at which the workforce can deliver them says Davies.

"The point, as history has consistently shown, is that as more advanced technology is introduced, it creates more opportunities for better-paying work for people. The IT industry, which didn't exist until recently, is recognised as paying higher salaries."

- NZ Herald

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