More than a million Britons, mostly of the male gender, tune in weekly to watch Ice Road Truckers, a soporific reality TV series about trucks delivering winter supplies to mining and oil camps in Canada and Alaska. The appeal for the couch-potato viewers, one imagines, is the fantasy of being a real tough guy (sometimes tough gal) doing a real job for real money rather than being stuck in a suburban shed picking parcels for Amazon, earning minimum wage.
While brawny Canadians are digging their trailers out of snow drifts, on the other side of the world their sun-burnt Australian cousins are being ejected from the driving seats. Rio Tinto is using robotic trucks to shift iron ore in the Pilbara and back in Canada, Suncor is reported to be recruiting the giant-wheeled cyborgs for bitumen mining in Alberta.
The collapse of oil and metal prices is a spur that will accelerate investment in robotics, automation and any technology that removes expensive, unreliable and accident-prone human beings. This will not be good for employment levels in a high-wage sector of the Canadian economy, but it is a global phenomenon and the latest chapter in a long story.
High-skilled, blue-collar manufacturing jobs are disappearing everywhere and the question is what will replace them. Just as weavers and spinners in the 18th century became machine minders in Victorian mills, the truckers and bulldozer operators will retreat to a cozy control room where they watch screens and drink cappucinos. But for every employment upgrade, there will also be those who shift down into lower-skilled retail and service sector jobs. If you plot employment distribution in mature economies, such as Canada, you are typically looking at an hourglass shape with a bump at the top of higher-paid managerial, scientific and professional jobs and a bigger bump at the bottom of retail and lower-skilled service sector employment. Squeezed in the middle is the manufacturing sector. Ideally, we want to see employment skills and opportunities migrating upward rather than downward.
Unfortunately, it's not plain sailing and in Britain, there is some disturbing evidence that employment expansion is creating jobs mainly at the bottom of the heap. Britain is the poster child of the global economic recovery, lauded by the International Monetary Fund, and the December unemployment rate dropped pleasingly for the Tories as they launch their election campaign. Unemployment fell from 6 per cent to 5.8 per cent and the overall working population employed is steady at 73 per cent. More encouraging still is a sign that people are a little better off, average wages are up 1.8 per cent compared with an inflation rate of just 1 per cent. However, researchers at Oxford University compared the distribution of employment creation between low- and high-skilled jobs in 11 European countries. Britain comes out poorly with a tendency to create more lower-skilled than higher-skilled jobs than EU rivals, including France and Italy. Despite its much better record at creating jobs over all, Britain seems to have a problem pushing the skills envelope.
The reasons are not entirely clear, but the researchers speculate that more powerful unions and more protective employment law may indirectly incentivize investment in new technology and fewer but higher-skilled jobs. Britain is one of the EU's more open employment markets; you can hire and fire almost at will and the freedom attracts much investment as well as wave after wave of desperate young people seeking casual labour in London's expanding service sector. However, the corollary has also been low and stagnant productivity. Britain creates lots of jobs, but lags France in output per man-hour and there has been little recent improvement. If weak employment protection is a factor in the profusion of low-paid jobs it would be a disturbing trade-off for governments: free up the right to work, disempower unions and you build a high employment but low-wage economy. Alternatively, protect and promote high-paid jobs with "social contracts" and you end up with a vast army of angry, unemployed and disillusioned young people.
If the former is worrying, the latter is disastrous. If you are now indulging in the fantasy of a future high-tech Canada led by a pampered elite whose brilliant manipulation of technology allows a partially employed proletariat to live in enforced leisure, cushioned by a generous state, look at France and think again. Manuel Valls, the French Prime Minister, gave a frantic warning this week. He reminded France of the terrible legacy of inequality in the French state's hidden policy of discarding the underskilled and unwanted into rotten suburbs on the edge of its great cities. In the wake of the recent massacres by homegrown Islamist terrorists, he spoke of the need to combat "territorial, social and ethnic apartheid."
As we move into our brave new world, we need to remember that there are people in it.