The robots are coming to take our jobs and Canada must do a lot more to deal with it.
That's not the prediction of a doomsday prophet, but of the world's leading business consultant, the managing director of global firm McKinsey & Co. and chair of the Canadian government's Advisory Council on Economic Growth, Dominic Barton.
Okay, admittedly Mr. Barton didn't exactly say the robots are taking over the planet. But he is warning that automation – robots, driverless cars, artificial intelligence, technological transformation – will disrupt millions of Canadian jobs, not far in the future, but in the next dozen years.
Put another way: If you are 30 or 35 now, there's a good chance that not just your job, but the kind of job you do, will be eliminated – at the most inopportune time of life, when you are 40 to 55, perhaps with a mortgage and kids.
The council that Mr. Barton heads is calling for a national "re-skilling" effort that would cost $15-billion a year – per year – to help Canadians cope. He doesn't think all that money can come from government, but he thinks it's going to have to come from somewhere.
"The scale of the change is so significant. What are we doing to really get at that?" Mr. Barton said over the phone from Melbourne, Australia. "We're talking a really big issue."
This issue is a massive sleeper test for the government. It's a test for all governments, really, but in this country it's a test of ambition for Justin Trudeau's Liberal government. It could well be the biggest societal issue of our time. Finance Minister Bill Morneau's next budget will be delivered in less than two weeks. Will it even begin to reflect the scope of the issue?
To be fair, Mr. Morneau's last budget talked a lot about job training, and it put some modest sums into it. Mr. Morneau, who ran a human-resources firm, was talking about these issues before he was elected as an MP. But there isn't yet a government response from Ottawa that hints at the scale of Mr. Barton's warning.
He is talking about vast change, soon. There are driverless cars now, he noted. That makes it easy to see the prospect of truck drivers thrown out of work en masse. (The courier firm FedEx has hinted its driverless vehicle plans aren't so far away; the company has 400,000 employees.)
It's not just truck drivers or factory workers who could see their jobs washed away by technological change. It includes knowledge workers, such as well-paid wealth managers who could find their current jobs automated. The Advisory Council estimated 10 to 12 per cent of Canadian workers could see their jobs disrupted by technology by 2030. "That's two million people," he noted. Mr. Barton thinks the estimate is conservative.
That's different from when a company goes bankrupt or a plant closes, and laid-off workers go look for the same job at another company. Technological change will wipe out occupations. People will need to do new kinds of work, and they will need new skills. Technology might also create millions of jobs, but if Canadians don't have the skills, a lot of those jobs might go to the United States or China or Sweden.
If you've watched the way voters in the United States and elsewhere have responded to disruptions of well-paying manufacturing jobs and good job opportunities, how it has fuelled divisive politics, an anti-trade backlash, and anti-immigrant nativism, just imagine how society could be roiled by two million middle-aged Canadians looking for work without much idea how they're going to start over.
The Advisory Council argued that it has to be met with a major revamp of job training and lifelong education and a $15-billion injection of resources.
It's an enormous sum, about three-quarters of the cost of the military. It's too much for federal and provincial governments to pay alone, he argues, but business will have to be given incentives to do more education and training. Individuals, even those who feel squeezed saving for retirement, will have to save for lifelong learning, perhaps with tax-sheltered learning accounts. They won't have a choice, he believes, "because it's coming."
The advisory council was appointed by the Liberals, and Mr. Barton has the ear of Mr. Trudeau and his inner circle. The Liberal government has adopted a lot of the council's recommendations, to varying degrees, in its strategy to foster economic growth. But Mr. Barton noted the one with the biggest estimate impact is that massive re-skilling initiative. So far, governments are working on the same scale to face up to the impact of automation, but they will have to face it sooner or later. It's coming.