Can automation be a good thing for the job market?
According to a 2013 study by the University of Oxford, 47% of all jobs were susceptible to becoming obsolete as a result of automation. Before you start ringing the alarm bells, however, there may actually be some reasons for optimism.
In fact, increased automation might end up being a good thing for the job market.
It can create jobs by making us more efficient
Bench, a Vancouver-based digital bookkeeping firm, is a tangible argument against the conclusions made by University of Oxford researchers. In the four years since the study specifically called out the profession as one where “computers have substituted” for humans, Bench has ballooned from 4 employees to over 250.
“I don’t necessarily think the workforce is going to shrink, I think more people are going to be able to afford bookkeeping,” said Ian Crosby, the co-founder and CEO of Bench. Crosby explains that automation has made human bookkeepers more efficient at their jobs, thus making bookkeeping services more affordable. Bookkeeping would traditionally cost between $300 and $1,000 per month, making it beyond the reach of small and medium sized businesses. Today, Bench provides bookkeeping services for $125 per month, and hopes to drive the price down further through greater automation.
As a result, more small businesses, who previously couldn’t afford bookkeeping services, are utilizing his company’s solutions. As the customer base grows, the staff required to support customers continues to grow in lockstep.
“We’re growing a market,” said Crosby. “When you can provide a better product for cheaper more people can afford it, and that ends up creating jobs.”
On the other hand…
While Crosby’s outlook may come as a relief to those concerned about the future, many still maintain that automation is going to be a net negative for the Canadian job market.
“This particular CEO’s company might be doing well, because they have a good offering, but there’s a one-way path towards moving things from human work to software,” suggests Rurik Bradbury, the global head of research and communications for LivePerson, an online chat software provider. Bradbury argues that while Bench might be growing the bookkeeping industry’s customer base, it will eventually peak, and then start replacing employees with more advanced automated tools.
“The hopeful case for automation is that a bunch of other jobs will be created where humans have a more unique advantage over computers,” said Bradbury, adding that there’s often a lag between when jobs are automated out of existence and when new opportunities arise to replace them. “The problem with automation is just the pain point in between. How painful will that interim period be?”
What we can do to protect ourselves
Whether automation drives down the number of job opportunities available to Canadians or not, both Bradbury and Crosby believe it’s important to acknowledge the coming wave of automation, and then plan ahead. How can you take advantage of it?
You can start by looking into what jobs may be safest.
“I predict that very routine work will be replaced by automation, and people will start to consume a lot more hand-made human stuff,” Bradbury says. “So, that might be a good place to focus if you’re worried about your job being replaced.”
Another approach would be to align yourself with companies that are embracing automation.
“Getting upset that the world is changing is not really an effective way of managing that change,” he says. “But by choosing to align yourself with forward-thinking businesses, you are going to be on the forefront of growth … and anyone who does that will be successful.”