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In this Feb. 25, 2020, file photo, robots work on an electric car body at the assembly line during a press tour at the plant of German manufacturer Volkswagen in Zwickau, Germany.

Jens Meyer/The Associated Press

Host of the Work and the Future podcast and senior fellow for economics and population change at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa

A double disruption is hitting the labour market, and without concentrated efforts to avoid it, the fallout could be dire. That is the conclusion of the World Economic Forum in its recently released Report on Jobs, and it neatly sums up what labour market observers have seen taking shape over the past few years and even more so during the pandemic.

Technology is changing how we work and the pandemic is squeezing the bottom lines of companies, forcing them to rethink everything, including their labour needs. Still, as unsettling as the concept of a double disruption is, for Canada it will offer opportunities as well. The pandemic has forced a change to policies already, and this might be the time to think of tweaking them to best suit the future of work, rather than abandoning them wholesale when the health crisis ends.

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Even before the pandemic hit, technology was being traded for human labour. Robots now work in factories making everything from cars to Twinkies, you can place your McDonald’s order at a kiosk, and e-mail and online scheduling apps have replaced scores of would-be office workers.

Still, a blazing global economy has kept job growth rising over the past decade and, at the time the pandemic hit, unemployment rates in Canada and the United States were at generational lows. Lockdowns and pandemic-fuelled recessions have turned that around sharply, with Canada’s unemployment rate now at 9 per cent, compared with 5.6 per cent in February, and many countries faring much worse.

According to the WEF’s survey of companies in 26 advanced and emerging countries, COVID-19 will push companies to accelerate the adoption of technology in ways that will eliminate the need for workers. By 2025, they see 85 million roles displaced by automation globally, with both blue-collar and white-collar jobs affected.

Zeroing in on Canadian companies, the survey found the top five jobs in danger of being completely eliminated are data entry clerks, accounting and payroll clerks, business services and administration managers, accountants and auditors, and administrative and executive secretaries.

Even if you do not see your job on the list, however, it is probably premature to breathe a sigh of relief. For those workers who do stay in their jobs, the WEF estimates that over the next five years, between 40 and 50 per cent of their core skills will change, resulting in the need for continuous reskilling for those who wish to hold on.

The flip side to the job loss is that there are jobs where demand will grow and where skilled workers will be in short supply. In Canada, topping that list are specialists in artificial intelligence and machine learning, data analysis, process automation and information security, as well as software and application developers, although again, it is probably a bad idea to get trained in anything and think you are done. While 93 per cent of surveyed companies in Canada say they will be hiring to get the skills they want, and the same per cent say they are willing to retrain, 79 per cent also say they will be automating work.

A pandemic is actually the perfect time to rethink policies, and not just as Band-Aids, to get us through the short-term economic damage. That might actually mean abandoning policies such as the wage subsidies that have been a part of Canada’s pandemic plan. Such policies, after all, are a short-term way to keep workers on the job, which on the face of it would seem to be the ultimate goal. However, such programs do nothing to deal with the issue of reskilling (which will be the only way to keep workers employable over the longer term) and perhaps only put off the inevitable. It is encouraging that business does seem open to retraining, which will be a mammoth task after the pandemic.

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As always, much of the burden is going to have to fall on workers, who will need to increase their skills, be open to continuously retraining and flexible enough to pivot from one job, or even industry, to another. In a world where gig work is becoming more prevalent, they likely also have to be open to not working in traditional jobs at all, and simply taking work when it’s available.

We may never go back to the days where you worked in one place for decades and got a gold watch when you retired, but some measure of work security can perhaps be salvaged once we acknowledge the disruption happening around us and make a commitment to deal with the changes.

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