Will robots steal your job?

Several recent studies have made headlines with their findings that nearly half of all jobs in industrialized countries, including Canada, are at threat of being automated, or replaced with robots.

There are already over 1.5 million industrial robots in operation, with more than half being used in the auto and electronics industries. These robots are expected to multiply, tripling or quadrupling to more than five robots in operation for each thousand American workers by 2025.

This is far from the first time workers have confronted transformative technological change affecting their jobs and lives. Every industrial revolution has involved major shifts of labour. In each case, transformation and disappearing jobs have been accompanied by jobs in new sectors and fields.

The first industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries mechanized production through water and steam power. The second used electricity and ushered in mass production. And the third, digital, revolution used electronics and information technology to automate production and more routine tasks.

Some studies show that automation has led to greater inequality and polarization of jobs, with an erosion of middle-skilled jobs. Evidence from the deployment of robots in manufacturing suggests that every additional robot per thousand workers has reduced local employment by about three to six workers and reduced wages by 0.25 to 0.5 percent.

Others argue that zombie robot apocalypse fears are overblown. There’s no evidence automation has led to increased joblessness. Stagnant wages and growing inequality are not the inevitable result of automation. Instead, they are consequences of political and economic measures that have weakened workers’ bargaining power.

While there’s understandable concern about job loss from automation and the introduction of robots, we shouldn’t get overly fearful. Canadian employment is concentrated in industries with a low risk of automation. This includes the sectors where most CUPE members work, like health care, social services, education, public administration, utilities, and information, culture and recreation. Most jobs in these sectors involve a lot of interpersonal interaction.

Even in truck driving, an industry singled out as at higher risk of automation, some of the dire predictions don’t stand up to scrutiny. Some predict that self-driving cars and autonomous vehicles could eliminate trucking jobs. However, this ignores the fact that truckers and drivers, like many other jobs, employ a diverse range of skills and have many different tasks.

Many CUPE agreements include provisions around technological change, as well as job security provisions. CUPE locals and their staff representatives should re-examine these clauses and be proactive about any areas where automation could appear. But there’s no reason to let fears of robots and automation undermine other bargaining priorities.