In his latest book 21 lessons for the 21st century, Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari provides reason to believe that a significant number of jobs will be eliminated through automation, machine learning and artificial intelligence. This is a speech we often hear, and that may seem hard to believe as our reality is not that described by “futuristic” people like Mr. Harari.
Indeed, many countries, including Canada, today face a serious labor shortage, in several job categories. Economists agree that this scarcity of workers will limit the growth of many businesses over the next few years.
A zero sum game
This shortage particularly affects the most innovative sectors of the economy. Companies like Pixomondo, specializing in visual effects, or Quebec’s Coveo, have recently announced their intention to offer new jobs in artificial intelligence in Montreal, while the market in Montreal is saturated in this area. As the Coveo CEO tells La Presse, these ads will not create new jobs; it’s about targeting brains in established companies.
Clearly, the negative impact of full employment has not yet been felt in Montreal; The Conference Board recently announced that Quebec’s largest city was leading Canada’s cities for the growth of its economy in 2018.
With a job vacancy rate of 3.9%, Quebec is the province where the issue of labor shortage is the most worrisome, especially as it affects the small businesses that are strong drivers of growth.
The routine trap
Paradoxically, this situation militates in favor of a greater investment in productivity instruments, foremost among which are automation, machine learning and artificial intelligence. As François Normand relates in these pages, several Quebec companies have followed suit. Les Affaires has also dedicated an entire file to the issue last September.
The buzz of the job market operates at two levels: at the microeconomic level, it forces individual companies to compete inventiveness to automate and codify certain tasks, using a variety of algorithmic technologies. Above all, from a macroeconomic point of view, it encourages a growing number of workers and service providers to take an interest in this field, and in doing so, to become the artisans of the replacement of man by the machine.
In this sense, today’s full employment could be forcing tomorrow’s “non-employment”.
This is not quite true though. In a fascinating article published in 2016, The Economist refers to a kind of “polarization of employment”, marked by a decline in jobs requiring “average” skills in favor of jobs that are either highly qualified or poorly qualified. At the two extremes of the spectrum, new jobs are created. But the middle class will suffer.
It has long been thought that “knowledge” jobs, or those requiring a high level of education, are the least likely to be disrupted by automation. This is where the current technological transformation differs from the previous ones: the line of demarcation is more about the type of tasks performed than the sector of activity or its intellectual level.
The Keystone? The routine aspect of work. According to The Economist’s record, the less routine a task is, the more likely it is to be done by a human.
And that does not say, precisely, anything of the intellectual dimension of the work.
While many companies are putting processes, standards and routines in place to address the labor shortage, they are creating the conditions for a “work routine” that could lead to its annihilation. The search for a balance between these two forces will be one of the main challenges of the coming years, and it is most blatantly in cities where the labor shortage is hitting the hardest.