Coronavirus recession, not robots, set to take jobs from future workforce

Coronavirus recession, not robots, set to take jobs from future workforce

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Fears automation will displace Australian workers are being challenged by new research which suggests industry investment and take-up of technology was already lagging behind the rest of the world before the COVID-19 crisis.

Jim Stanford, an economist and director of the Centre for Future Work, based at the Australia Institute, said rather than automation taking jobs, workers were more likely to be replaced by another “desperate human being who’s willing to do the job for a little bit cheaper”.

“The future of work doesn’t look very exciting at all. It’s not shiny, it’s not driven by technology, it’s driven by a fight for survival,” Dr Stanford told 7.30 as part of a new series on the education and jobs of Australians in 2025.

“The reality is though, economically speaking, the advent of new technology in Australia is going surprisingly slowly in the real world.”

A man wears a suit and an open-collared shirt.
Jim Stanford says the future of work will be driven by a “fight for survival” rather than technology.(Supplied: Australia Institute)

The Centre for Future Work report, entitled The Robots are NOT Coming for Your Job … (And Why that’s a Bad Thing), cited low business investment in technology, low use of industrial robots and lagging research and development as “the most tangible manifestation of new technology” which had “plunged dramatically, with painful consequences for Australian economic growth, productivity, and innovation”.

The report says that since 2017, business investment in machinery and equipment has averaged just 3.75 per cent of GDP.

“That’s the weakest pace of investment during the entire post-war era, and just half the pace recorded for several decades after the Second World War,” the report says.

“We’re going to see more and more of those very low-wage, low-grade, low-tech jobs,” Dr Stanford said.

‘What really had to change was our human to human practices’

Dom Price sits at a conference table.
Dom Price says software “often gets less bugs now than humans”.(Supplied: Atlassian)

However, Atlassian work futurist Dom Price told 7.30 the COVID-19 crisis has “poured accelerant” on the pace of technological change.

“I think the investment in automation, robotics, machine learning will increase because it, in some regards, is seen as less risky than humans, right?” Mr Price said.

“Bizarrely, I think software often gets less bugs now than humans can get.

“Software can work 24/7, [it] doesn’t need an enterprise bargaining agreement, doesn’t take holidays, doesn’t have sick leave.

“And so I think there is a view in some parts of society, in some parts of the economy, that technology’s great.”

Atlassian, a company with an already decentralised workforce which makes collaboration software, was ideally suited to pandemic-era work.

But Mr Price said even their workforce learnt important lessons about human-technology interface.

“Our people were ready for it, the technology was ready for it,” he said.

“What really had to change was our human to human practices: how we engage, how we collaborate, what are those moments that we’re used to having at a water cooler, or in a meeting room, that now were at the end of a call.

He said the Australian firm, which reported revenue of $2.2 billion last financial year partly due to COVID-19, placed more emphasis on core human qualities than technical skills.

“The hiring used to be a one-way process,” he said.

“I think in today’s market it’s about a match, a balance, and saying, ‘What are the social causes that you care about? What’s your stance on climate? What’s your stance on leadership, on women in business?'”

Where AI finds jobs

A woman wears a white top.
Final-year student Monica Li says she feels insecure about her job prospects given the high rate of unemployment.(ABC News: Andy Park)

The idea that technology can support, not supplant, workers can be seen at the digital arm of Australia’s biggest retailer, WooliesX.

Paul Munnington from WooliesX has witnessed a surge in activity since the COVID-19 crisis began.

“The economy, as we know, is moving more to digitalisation,” he said.

“I think COVID especially has accelerated that.

“From a WooliesX perspective, we have to be at the leading edge of what we’re doing.”

Helping the organisation source hot new talent for part-time graduate job placements is an AI-driven labour-matching service called Hatch, the brainchild of Adam Jacobs, who is behind online fashion retailer The Iconic.

“And so our matching science looks at those traits of a human, of a young person, and matches them to work that would be a great fit for them.”

Chloe Sheridan, Monica Li and Ace Nguyen are all concluding study, working for WooliesX part time and seeking further full-time work when unemployment has never been as high in their lifetimes.

Adding to their worry is the fact that even though their skills are new, they will likely need to reskill before 2025.

“It definitely makes me feel insecure, especially as graduates are probably the most dispensable employees,” Ms Li said.

“In 2025 I will hopefully be in some sort of permanent work, using the skills that I’m developing now — digital skills, communication skills, design skills — in a position that I don’t necessarily know what it will look like.”

Dr Stanford said the labour market in Australia was in an “absolutely brutal downturn”.

“It’s something we’ve never seen before,” he said.

“After all, we deliberately shut down several important sectors of the economy in order to preserve public health. So that immediately destroyed hundreds of thousands of jobs, and young people and women and workers in the service sector were hit hardest and hit first.”

Watch part 2 of this special series tonight on 7.30.



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