Is Automation Coming for Your Job?
A tidal wave of automation is coming to get your job! It’s on the news, all over the web, and on every high-paid consultant’s lips. Some of these people even understand what they’re talking about. Technology is changing at an increasing pace, and it seems that new technologies are designed to disrupt, which is taken to mean replace human labour with machines.
How worried about automation should you be?
To get a handle on such a widespread phenomenon, let’s start by drilling down into individual jobs that might be at risk and try to see why. A fascinating study by RBC actually helps us see that not all the coming change is bad and gives anyone worried about the future of their job a path forward. It has to do with acquiring a core set of skills that will allow you to move between jobs and improve your capabilities with each move. It does this by grouping jobs in Canada - and by extension much of the rest of the world - into categories that are defined by a specific set of core skills required for jobs in that group, or cluster. The general idea is being able to move between jobs within a cluster because the core skills required are very similar. Not only that, with a little more effort and creativity, it’s also possible to move across groups by acquiring enough new core competencies to enable you to perform jobs in a completely different cluster. Not easy, but certainly not impossible.
Let’s see how. Look at the following table, which lists 12 skills that you need to build a successful career in Canada. The RBC study has 35 of them in total, and it lists them in descending order of in-demand skills for Canada’s workforce over the next years and decades. The following table takes 12 of these skills and lists them in random order. Which of these skills do you think will be in greater demand? Which will be in lower demand?
See if you can order these 12 skills so they match the rankings in the RBC report. You may be surprised to see which skills will apparently be in greater demand and which skills will not be nearly as important as one might think. Remember we’re taking about skills that can be used in a variety of jobs that cut across several clusters or groups. We’ll have the answers – according to the RBC report – a little later on.
Most In-Demand Jobs in Canada
Canada’s economy is doing just fine right now; perhaps not quite booming but unemployment is relatively low and job opportunities are available across the country. But it would be a mistake to think the same jobs will be in demand in a few years. Or that any job still in demand will require the same responsibilities in several years time. Human resources consulting giant Randstad recently rated the top 10 in-demand jobs currently in Canada as follows:
|Engineering Project Manager|
|Customer Service Representative|
|IT Project Manager|
An alternative top 25 list by Canadian Business has the following occupations in the top 10 spots as ranked by demand on the part of employers, workforce growth, and salary:
|Public Administration Director|
|Mining and Forestry Manager|
|Real Estate/Financial Manager|
|Economic Development Director|
While it might be surprising to see General Labourer as one of the most in-demand job categories in Canada right now, it won’t surprise you to know that automation and technological disruption will hit those types of jobs very hard. A Nurse Practitioner, however, is likely to remain a very in-demand job given the demographics of a country like Canada, with an enormous cohort of baby boomers reaching retirement age and needing increased levels of healthcare for the remainder of their lives.
And please don’t confuse an IT Project Manager with an everyday coder who can understand a handful of programming languages like Java and C++. The IT Project Manager has to also have people skills to effectively manage the implementation of an IT project, and not just be tech-proficient. Think about that list of skills above. Which ones do you think are most important for this type of job?
Mining & Forestry Manager is not about yelling at lumberjacks, miners and truck drivers. A manager of a mining project is more likely to be meeting government and regulatory officials to ensure the proper planning and approvals of a mining project which may be located anywhere around the globe. Effectively communicating across cultures, languages, and political systems is key to anyone who wishes to be successful at such a job.
Forestry management is – like Mining – as much about using leading-edge technology to ensure compliance with best practices and sustainable forestry practices as it is about harvesting timber. Consider the story of Aria Guo, who after getting her degree in Forestry and working in Northern Ontario decided that estimating timber supply was far too labour intensive and sluggish. She returned to school, getting her master’s degree in Forestry, and specialized in remote sensing and biodiversity monitoring. She went after a problem she saw, acquired the technical skills to solve it by pursuing a post-graduate degree and became a valuable professional who’s helping to change the way forestry is done in Canada.
You would think that Amazon – perhaps the ultimate icon of a disruptive corporation that has changed the way people shop forever – would only use automated forklifts and would have fired all their forklift operators a long time ago. Apparently, however, they’re still working at Amazon and at other countless warehouses around North America and the rest of the globe.
Will automation eliminate some of those jobs? It already has, but it requires reconfiguring the entire layout of a warehouse and that means high upfront expenses. Nonetheless, the job going forward will require learning new technical skills to stay relevant and, at some point, perhaps being replaced by a machine and taking a job – for those who can – supervising a whole platoon of automated forklifts.
Skills Vs Technological Disruption
Having drilled down a little into some of the in-demand jobs in Canada, what kind of skills emerge as core competencies, enabling workers to successfully transition between jobs as they adapt to technological disruption? The RBC report divides these skills into 6 clusters that it identifies with the type of jobs that tend to require them. And more importantly, it identifies what skill clusters – and the types of jobs associated with each cluster – are most vulnerable to disruption.
These are jobs that require critical thinking and a good dose of management skills. Some examples are:
- Engineers involved in design and production;
- and interestingly, heavy equipment mechanics.
Because their skills are highly developed and at the analytical end of the spectrum, technological disruption should be minimal according to the RBC report. Not only that, there will be a significant shortage of solvers over the coming years.
Let’s consider a heavy equipment mechanic and how technological change might affect their job. Consider Canada’s Oil Sands, a key part of our country’s resource sector and a large employer in the energy sector. Suncor Energy has announced a plan to buy up to 150 driverless trucks to move the ore (the tar sand) from the pits to the plant. It’s a project that has been testing about 9 of these vehicles for several years and is now ready to gear up and start using the trucks on a full-time basis. That means around 500 positions will be lost at Suncor while 100 new positions will be created, leaving a net loss of 400 jobs. A heavy equipment mechanic will still be very much in demand at Suncor to keep these huge, complex vehicles in operating conditions. He or she will have to upgrade their technical skills to be able to properly service these trucks and will have to work with the tech people who create (and service) the automated portion of the truck that operates on its own. Their jobs, however will be safe. A former truck driver, on the other hand, will likely see his or her job gone.
These are people that have relatively stronger analytical skills compared to those in other clusters. It could be a veterinarian, for example, or a musician, or a child care provider who has to deal with groups of pre-schoolers. Technological disruption will likely be quite low for people in this cluster. Shortages of qualified providers will also be substantial over the next few years if not quite as severe as the coming shortage of solvers. That means if you can acquire these sets of skills, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding a job.
An experienced child-care provider, for example, will have plenty of work in Alberta’s Oil Sands, providing pre-schooling for young kids while both their parents are busy working. And the automation that is and will continue to disrupt companies like Suncor, especially most of the truck drivers working there, will not threaten her job, although it might require some skills upgrading in order for her to use the latest available technology to monitor, care for, and educate the toddlers in her care.
You know them well. They work in a call centre as customer service representatives dealing with irate clients all day. They tend to have strong so-called soft-skills like
- relatively high emotional intelligence
- knowing how to respond to people’s frustrations
- and solving problems on the go.
They might be also be an administrative assistant at a busy law firm, or a graphic designer with a list of demanding, high-powered clients. They need to be able to deal with people effectively, sympathetically, and efficiently. Interestingly, Uber drivers are considered facilitators. Truck drivers are listed below, however, in Crafters, another skills cluster. There will be a fairly large number of job openings in this cluster, but there will also be even more job seekers. That means that finding and keeping a job as a facilitator will not be as easy as the case with a solver or a provider.
Another characteristic of this cluster of skills is that while problem solving is fairly highly valued, technical skills tend to lag. This can be a problem because some of their functions can be and are being replaced by automated processes. Just ask a call centre employee who’s been replaced by an automated message service that also refers clients to interactive web sites where they can browse their account and solve the problem for themselves with the information they find there. This means that there is a moderate possibility of disruption due to technological change for facilitators.
This cluster of skills is well, based on technical skills. It includes everything from a machinist, to a sheet metal worker, to an electrician, or a carpenter. You have to solve problems, and generally work with others to build or maintain a product or to put up a house or a building. But it’s your technical skills that predominate. Automation can eliminate a machinist’s job or change the way they do their work. Or both. Technological disruption will be a large factor with this cluster, so it may be that a sheet metal worker has to upgrade his skills and learn to work with new machinery in order to keep their job. In other words, technological disruption will be an important factor for this cluster.
As the Electro Federation of Canada’s Industry Research Report states, electrical contractors face two main choices in today’s world: offer a wide range of services or specialize in a core set of services. As well, manufacturers and distributors are starting to eliminate the electrician with many household electrical products by selling direct to consumers and providing web-based manuals and guides for installation. Or that electrical contractor and his best electricians might consider working in a new job in the same skills cluster: a drone assembly technician, for example. They might be surprised how portable their skills are.
This cluster has people whose jobs require ability and some technical expertise but very little analytical or management skills. A baker, a roofer, a fisherman, or even a cashier, falls into this cluster. Remember our truck driver that Suncor laid off because of automated trucks? He or she is also a crafter. These are often demanding jobs but ones whose skill set might require a few upgrades to move to a more in-demand job. And the risk of being outsourced to a machine or an automated process is higher than for the first 4 clusters outlined above.
If you’ve been a baker you’re likely used to getting up at ungodly hours to make sure the product is ready for delivery when the customer needs it. An interesting move within the cluster is from baker to overnight courier. That might seem like a stretch but being willing to work hours most people aren’t as well as willing to upgrade some skills to be able to use the technology that overnight couriers need to deliver goods just in time to online retailers, for example, should be enough to get you started in a new career in a growing field of work.
This skill cluster involves basic skills with much less technical or analytical skills than any of the above clusters. For example, a logging equipment operator, or a cleaner, or a worker in a greenhouse. And this is the group that will be hit hardest by technology and its attendant disruptions. The demand for these types of jobs will continue falling in the years ahead.
Skills vs In-Demand Jobs
That means we’re back to the start when we looked at the current in-demand jobs in Canada. For example, in the Randstad survey, General Labourers are ranked as one of the most in-demand jobs right now in Canada. But clearly General Labourers are part of the Doer skill-cluster and are clearly the most vulnerable to both automation as well as any cost-cutting when the next recession inevitably hits.
An elevator mechanic, on the other hand, will continue to be an in-demand job. The 10th listed in-demand job according to the Canadian Business survey will remain a key part of the economy because of the large number of condominium and apartment towers that keep going up in major urban centres across Canada. While it is a job that seems to fall under the Technicians skills cluster, it also could be seen as belonging to the Facilitator cluster because it helps maintain an essential service in any building: a properly functioning elevator.
What skills upgrades would you need to go from an electrician to an elevator mechanic? Clearly most of the skills would be technical upgrades but good communication skills and working in a team effectively in order to get the job done with a minimum of risk is also key for anyone looking to make the transition.
What Skills Do You Need to Survive Automation?
Remember that list of skills at the beginning? Here it is again. But this time we’ve also grouped the 12 skills in a second table, in terms of how in-demand they will be for future jobs. Here’s the original table again:
|Management of Financial Resources|
Have you thought about what the order of these 12 skills might be? Now that we’ve gone through the 6 clusters or groups, which skills do you think rank more highly in Canada’s economy as it continues to be affected by technological disruption? Which skills will help you find a job in a growing or emerging field of work? So, let’s now list these skills in descending order of importance for the jobs of the future in Canada. They are part of a much larger table, so we will indicate their position within the larger table:
|1. Active Listening|
|3. Critical Thinking|
|16. Learning Strategies|
|20. Systems Analysis|
|27. Management of Financial Resources|
It is more than a little surprising to see programming and science near the bottom of this skills list. In fact, they are near the end of a much larger list of skills, so the gap between programming and, say, active listening is even bigger than shown by our condensed table above. What this means is that science skills or coding skills on their own is not enough in the current disruptive job market. You need to add to your portfolio of skills, unless of course you are a very qualified scientist or programmer. But the ability to persuade and think critically and communicate effectively and convincingly are skills which you will need even in most high-tech jobs. Especially in the most high-tech jobs.
Next, here is a table of what are called cross-functionality skills. These are skills that are considered the most important across a wide range of job openings in Canada. They are the kind of skills you take from one job to another as you build your career. Please note that there will be some crossover with our previous table as well. They are ranked in terms of their order in a larger table, as is the case in the previous table:
|Current Skill Demand|
|1. Social Perceptiveness|
|3. Judgement and Decision Making|
|4. Time Management|
|10. Management of Personnel Resources|
|11. Systems Analysis|
|12. Systems Evaluation|
|18. Technology Design|
|22. Equipment Selection|
|24, Equipment Maintenance|
Now let’s return to our 2 lists of in-demand jobs in Canada. If you take the 4 top earning jobs from the Randstad survey, you get the following table:
|IT Project Manager||$92,000 - $114,000|
|Software Engineer||$83,000 - $99,000|
|Account Manager||$72,000 - $92,000|
|Business Analyst||$73,000 - $87,000|
Now we take the top 4 earning jobs from the Canadian Business table:
|Economic Development Director||$114,000|
|Public Administration Director||$106,000|
|Real Estate Financial Manager||$103,000|
It is clear that skills like active listening, speaking, and thinking critically are a crucial part of these high-paying jobs. If you think a software engineer spends most of her time writing code, think again. Go here to read a poignant blog by a fairly new software engineer who suddenly realizes that meeting and talking and planning and communicating are far more important to her job than sitting at her desktop or laptop and just coding. Yes, technology is everywhere, but having human beings that design it, build it, maintain it, and work effectively with it to reach goals by collaborating with others is what makes a skills economy function. Don’t let disruptive technology overwhelm you. Being a successful part of Canada’s skills economy may be only a few skills upgrades away. Closer than you think.