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Former Member
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There’s been lots of discussion about the impact the digital disruption will have on people’s jobs. Advances in digital technology and automation will have a significant impact for workers, as evidenced by other technological shifts in history such as the introduction of aqueducts to Ancient Rome, the industrial revolution, and the high speed of manufacturing growth after both world wars.

In June last year CEDA released their report on digital disruption and the workforce. They reported that more than five million jobs, almost 40 per cent of Australian jobs that exist today, have a moderate to high likelihood of disappearing in the next 10 to 15 years due to technological advancements. From an economic perspective growth is needed for a healthy economy. So if industries are dying then where will jobs growth will come from? More jobs are being replaced by machines and computers showing higher accuracy rates than humans.

There is increasing evidence and trials showing that formulaic tasks undertaken by humans today can be replaced by sophisticated data analysis and extraction. Cognitive technologies can support humans by analysing data and providing unbiased advice about the impacts of different alternatives. This improves the accuracy, timeliness, quality and overall effectiveness of a specific decision or a set of related decisions. This releases people to focus on less mundane tasks and gives them choices to pursue more interesting work and to focus more on the people to people connection. This is a good thing!

The ethics of where the automation of decision making begins and ends and when human intervention is to occur, is an area of innovation that still needs considerable exploration and in some cases government regulation. Humans have a strong mental complexity and an inordinate capacity to adapt to new situations.

Bernard Salt noted in last week’s Australian newspaper that the human condition is uncomfortable with idleness, and that meaningful, fulfilling work will always evolve to fill the void. He asserts that in any period of history workers have adapted and life has moved on. It’s true. The time it takes for whole industries to recover and adapt is different depending on the extent of the change but people move on. The impact on jobs due to the digital disruption is not necessarily a quantum shift that’s too big to manage for either individuals or societies. It will hurt for a while in some cases – but people recover.

We may not know the extent of the changes in the job space due to the digital disruption but we should be confident that we can handle it. People are better educated than we’ve ever been, we’re more sophisticated and have access to more information than at any other stage in the history of the world. This means we’re generally aware of what’s going on. Most people tend to be aware of what’s happening in their industry and are more open than ever before to re-skilling, moving jobs, and changing occupations. Displaced workers are generally finding work in other fields.

The adaptive challenge is real. Incorporating new technical skills into current mindsets is not easy but recovery seems to be occurring more quickly than it ever has in history before and this is partly due to better education and awareness levels. There’s still some talk in regards to concerns that people might be doing degrees that are obsolete by the time they graduate as the jobs no longer exist. However, how many of us know someone that doesn’t work in their original area of training now? It’s quite common for people to change careers and people’s skill sets can grow and adapt as they evolve in maturity and experience.

The government innovation agenda needs to not only be about fantastic widgets that solve large scale social issues, but also about helping people to become more versatile, and comfortable with re-skilling so they can keep adding value to the digital economy. No one can fully predict the future but we do know that the area of jobs growth is currently in the services sector. Tourism, education and health care are strong frontrunners. Globally governments are investing more and more in tourism.

Recent budgets in Australia and overseas show  strengthened investment in tourism as late as this week (State: ACT Government) as this is seen as a viable growth industry for the future. As households grow wealthier they spend more money on services. It’s an interesting trend that the beauty industry is also an area of strong growth. The recent Reserve Bank figures highlight that household spending on services has grown in the last 30 years with health and education the main areas of big expenditure.

These, to some extent, like beauticians, are industry areas traditionally caring and people focussed so it’ll be interesting to see just how far the automation can proceed into this space. Machines will indeed assist people to make decisions but replacing nurses caring for patients is a lot harder than replacing an assembly line worker.

If government is to help support jobs of the future then it’s a good idea if the innovation agenda includes support for people to re-skill and engender a culture of ‘having a go’ in growth industries. The digital disruption doesn’t necessarily mean we all have to be technology savvy – it may just mean you need to retrain as a beauty therapist!

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Further reading: CEDA: Australia’s future workforce, June 2015 Reserve Bank Bernard Salt Column The Australian 2 June 2016

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