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One-third of Canadian workers will be automated out of a job in the next 15 years: McKinsey

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(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

About one in three Canadian workers will be pushed out of their professions in the next 15 years as artificial intelligence and robotics take on more jobs, according to the McKinsey Global Institute.

The New York-based management consulting firm has road-mapped the long-expected labour revolution powered by increasingly robust automation technologies. Researchers sized up 2,000 tasks across 800 occupations, and found it is theoretically possible to automate 50 per cent of what Canadians and Americans get paid to do.

“The top line is relatively scary,” McKinsey product manager Matthew Thomas told guests at the Ontario Economic Summit on Wednesday evening. “We’ve seen digital technology transform a manufacturing economy into a knowledge economy. But over the next 15 years, we believe the skill shifts are going to be more dramatic.”

Ominous as it may sound, Thomas said only about 10 per cent of jobs are projected to lose most of their functions to non-humans. Sixty per cent of workers are expected to have a third of their activities automated.

“About one-third of Canadians will have to switch occupations over the next 15 years,” Thomas said.

Manufacturing, unsurprisingly, remains most vulnerable to disruption by non-human work. Thomas said food service, accommodation (think hotels), warehousing and transportation follow.

“Robots can make burgers. You can self check-into hotels using kiosks. In a lot of restaurants you are going to start ordering meals using iPads,” he said. “You are going to see more autonomous vehicles in defined settings with predictable physical layouts, a warehouse for example. We also think the next impact here is long-haul trucking.”

All of that has been predicted. So to has the potential for artificial intelligence to become central to accounting, mortgage underwriting, and other financial services. Yet the question of how humans will remain relevant next to their new artificially intelligent, robotic co-workers remains largely unanswered.

Seeing the ones and zeros on the wall, and pivoting to a STEM (Science, technology, engineering and math) career is one way to go. Another is to become highly-skilled in things computers can’t do, i.e. jobs that require social and emotional skills, Thomas said. Psychiatrists, chief executives, legislators, and teachers are among the professions he expects to hold out the longest against digital disruption.

Humans, he said, should borrow from the computer’s playbook. Meaning workers will be in and out of academic institutions to continuously upgrade their skills, just like how computers update software throughout their lifecycle.

“The model of where students educate themselves for the first 20 years of life, and go off and work for many decades, that is no longer going to happen,” he said. “You study a bit. You go out and work. You study a bit. You go out and work.”

Some institutions are already embracing the trend. The University of Michigan Ross School of Business MBA program waives its program costs for alumni looking to return and upgrade their skills. Thomas said Stanford University has talked about offering a 10-year long bachelor’s education.

Large-scale human workforce transformation efforts are also underway at some forward-thinking major corporations.

Germany-based software giant SAP SA (SAP) is said to be repositioning a third of its workforce to machine learning and cloud computing roles by offering select employees a six-month training program.

AT&T (T) is taking a more hands-off approach. In 2013, the company discovered that 100,000 of its 240,000 workers were in roles it probably wouldn’t need in a decade. The century-old phone firm decided to foot tuition bills for any employee looking to upgrade their skills as part of its massive talent overhaul, referred to at the company as Workforce 2020.

At the government level, Thomas said Scandinavian nations are leading way with job security councils to help those who have been automated out of work. The Swedish government, for example, collects a tax from large employers to pay for a privately-owned council focused on skills testing, training programs, and job hunting.

“What we found is 85 per cent of the unemployed or recently laid off workers found their jobs within a year,” Thomas said.

“It’s going to be a large-scale transformation for everyone. All of us are going to have to change a little bit.”

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