Australia is undergoing profound changes in the workforce; automation is making jobs obsolete, there is a decline in job quality, globalisation of tradeable jobs, under-employment, and job uncertainty in typically stable industries, University of Western Australia Centre for Regional Development Co-Director, Dr Fiona Haslam McKenzie, has told a CEDA audience in Canberra.
At the panel titled Job security, disadvantage and Australia’s rust belt: where to from here?, panel Chair Ms McKenzie alongside panelists Programmed Managing Director, Chris Sutherland; Federal Shadow Assistant Treasurer, the Hon. Dr Andrew Leigh; and Federal Department of Employment Secretary, Renee Leon PSM discussed the key issues facing Australia’s workforce, and whether Australia’s two-speed economy was a serious concern to Australia’s economic future.
Ms McKenzie set the scene for Australia’s current state of employment, stating Australia has gone through a long cycle of positive employment growth nationally, but it is now coming out of this growth period.
She stated a number of factors are contributing to the decline of employment growth, including technological innovation, a shift away from traditional sectors – such as mining and manufacturing, and the pattern of urbanisation. However, she said these issues are “not unique to Australia”, and follow a wider global trend.
She highlighted that NSW continues to dominate economic growth, with the resource states sliding down the economic ladder.
“Resources dominated states are encountering the pains of a market readjustment. Property markets have progressively declined. Most particularly, we are experiencing a decline in wages in the mining sector in relation to other sectors, which is having an impact particularly in WA,” she said.
Ms Leon considered whether it is a national concern to have an uneven economy, and said, “It does matter to the people affected by economic transition. However, a few years ago we were all angsting about the fact the mining boom was too strong and the eastern states were being left behind. Now it’s transitioning the other way we are acting like this is the first time we’ve seen it, and of course it is not.”
“The reality is,” Ms Leon said “for the people who are in the middle of the transition, the government does have a role in making sure those people are supported.”
Compounding on these regional challenges, she stated that the workforce is undergoing profound changes, including automation and globalisation.
To survive in the future digital economy, she said, Australia needs to have adaptive capacity.
“To be an adaptive economy, we need a qualified workforce. We need to demonstrate that our workforce has experience, and youth engagement in work and study. Our workforce needs to have the opportunity to upgrade its skills and qualifications. It needs the ability to access transport, high-speed internet and access to natural resources.”
Mr Sutherland said it could be looked at as a case of the university educated workers, and the non-university educated workers, saying those who are university educated are more mobile and likely to move to where the work is, whereas those in trade and blue collar jobs are less mobile and more likely to feel the affects of such changes.
He said these blue collar workers are certainly feeling concern right now. This could be concern in seeing the jobs their fathers and grandfathers did disappear, or fear these jobs will no longer be around for their children and grandchildren.
Ms Leon discussed whether Australia should be concerned about the digitalization of jobs, saying “people talk about automation as though it’s something that’s going to happen in the future, but of course for decades jobs have been automated.”
She said that automation is improving the quality of jobs. It is making jobs obsolete that are dangerous, repetitive and demanding, and that it will make way for jobs that are more enjoyable and safe.
“We should look where benefits are being reaped and the costs are falling... We ought not stand in the way of transitions that are overall making the economy more productive and making jobs more interesting and safe,” Ms Leon said.
Ms Leon said automation won’t kill jobs in a net sense, but the government will need to ensure it is transitioning people to higher skilled jobs. These jobs will be non-routine jobs, even if they are low in skill level, and they will be jobs where customer interaction not easily automatable by a machine.
In terms of how future job-seeking generations can cope and adjust with automation and the changing economy, Dr Leigh said, “When faced with uncertainty you should take out as much insurance as is reasonable. In this case, the form of insurance someone born in year 2000 and getting now ready to finish school, looking at a job that will keep them in the labour force until 2060 or 2070, the form of insurance they should get is very general skills.
“We can’t be sure what jobs will be around in 2060 or in 2070, but we know they are going to be radically different from today.”
Dr Leigh discussed how hard it is to predict with any certainty what the jobs of the future will look like, saying, “It’s madness to say we can forecast the jobs of the future and give narrow specific training for what they will be.”
Overall, Ms Leon had an optimistic view for employment levels of the future, saying “we are creating more jobs every year than are being lost” and that future education and training will have to be life-long to keep up with technological changes and automation, rather than stopping at a certain point in every individual’s life.
Click here to see all the highlights from State of the Nation 2017