Technology | Innovation

Technology remains the friend not foe of the worker

There have been plenty of predictions about the future of work; ranging from a 15-hour week to dystopian jobless woe. But so far, according to Productivity Commission Deputy Chair Karen Chester, all the soothsayers have got it wrong.

Speaking at a CEDA WA event on the future of work, Ms Chester said foretelling of widespread redundancies in the Australian workforce brought about by technology have not eventuated. 

“For throughout the past 100 years it’s been more a case of technology remaining the loyal friend not foe of the worker — continuing to remove jobs that are often unpleasant, physically tiring, downright dangerous or just tedious,” she said. 

Ms Chester drew on the Productivity Commission’s recent work, including its 2016 Digital Disruption and 2017 Shifting the Dial reports, to argue a range of measures suggest technology is not having as large an effect on employment as expected. 

“Overall, the evidence suggests that labour markets have been well resilient to shocks posed by new technologies of the past century and even the most recent, modern bit,” Ms Chester said.

“Occupations, skills and jobs come and they go. No matter how transformative the technology. 

“No technology has removed people’s capacity to work. And in productivity terms, all have been more transformative than the digital revolution so far (with the emphasis being on the so far).”

Ms Chester acknowledged there has been automation of many tasks in the workforce but said there is a lack of evidence this has translated into an impact on overall employment. 

“Arguably if technology was both disruptive and displacing — replacing existing jobs without creating new ones — we would expect to see a persistent upward trend in the unemployment rate. And we don’t,” she said. 

“Whilst routine manual and routine cognitive jobs have fallen as a proportion of jobs from 50 per cent to 37 per cent; non-routine manual and non routine cognitive jobs have increased from 42 per cent to 53 per cent. And that’s a good thing – think child care, aged care, nursing, office managers, designers and engineers using software.

“Most importantly, the aggregate amount of work available to the Australian population on a per capita basis has not seen a decline since the 1980s, when computers became common in the workplace. 

“Indeed, the amount of work available has actually increased by about 14 per cent since the early 1980s.”
Ms Chester said evidence does not support suggestions that workers are changing jobs more often either.
“Not only is there no evidence that more workers are being forced to work in short duration jobs, but what is apparent is that the opposite has happened,” she said. 

“The proportion of workers in very long duration jobs (more than 10 years) has actually increased from just under 20 per cent in 1982 to around 27 per cent in 2016.”

She said a two-fold public policy focus is needed to, firstly, make sure there are no road blocks to our economy reaching the “deployment phase” of the digital or any technological age and, secondly, to make sure we avoid a workforce of ‘haves and have nots’ in the benefits from the changes in the economy and, ultimately, jobs. 

“For us at the Commission perhaps this is our biggest public policy ‘must have’ when thinking of ensuring innovation and technology delivers not just more jobs but jobs for most,” she said. 

“That sense of equality in who shares in the ultimate job, productivity and wage dividend.”

Ms Chester said that we know structural change, whatever its source, can result in considerable work and thus life disruption for the workers impacted unless we get consequential skill adjustment right. 

She said the Productivity Commission has found, however, that government effectiveness in assisting transitioning workers into new occupations and industries is unclear with decent evaluation of transitional assistance largely missing in action.

Ms Chester said the Commission had also identified fundamental fractures in the current education and training system including deteriorating results in the subjects that matter for future work, a VET system struggling to deliver relevant competency based qualifications and a need for universities to improve student learning outcomes by delivering qualifications relevant to labour market and worker needs.

“Our key educational institutions seem a little more focused on research than student employment outcomes; which is unsurprising given the notable absence of their ‘skin in the game’ with respect to those outcomes,” Ms Chester said. 

“Currently, the tertiary education system is set up against becoming a chef at age 40, or a dementia care worker at age 50. Retraining is currently inconvenient and expensive, and the approach of educational institutions, primarily universities, remains outdated and outmoded – still emphasising a one career-for-life approach, which is not the modern-day reality for many workers.” 

Following Ms Chester’s keynote address a panel discussion on future work took place with Rio Tinto Vice President, Human Resources, Nicky Firth; Fogarty Foundation Executive Chairperson, Annie Fogarty; and FutureNow – Creative and Leisure Industries Training Council Chief Executive Officer, Julie Hobbs.