How automation threatens Ontario workers

The province could lose 3 million jobs to automation in the coming years. Who is most at risk — and how can policy makers help them?
By Jordann Thirgood and Sunil Johal - Published on Dec 21, 2016
Robots that assemble cars are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to automation in Ontario. (microolga/iStock)



The loss of more than 300,000 manufacturing jobs in Ontario over the past decade has dealt a severe blow to communities across the province. Yet it pales in comparison to what lies ahead. Up to 3 million Ontarians could lose their jobs to automation over the next 20 years. But where will this be felt most acutely — and what can be done to support affected workers?

Seven of Ontario’s 10 most common jobs are vulnerable to replacement, and six are facing a 90 per cent or greater probability of automation. Ryerson’s Brookfield Institute recently replicated a well-known Oxford study that determined the probabilities of jobs being eliminated based on expected advances in technology. The institute found that retail salespersons — of which there are more than 250,000 in Ontario — have a 92 per cent chance of losing their jobs to automation.

They weren’t alone: food counter attendants, kitchen helpers, and related support occupations, which represent almost 125,000 jobs in Ontario, have a 92 per cent chance of being eliminated. The situation is even worse for cashiers, administrative assistants, administrative officers, and general office-support workers — the probability of their jobs being automated is 96 per cent or higher. Combined, those four occupations represent nearly 400,000 jobs.

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Then there are the 92,000 Ontarians who drive transport trucks — they face a 79 per cent chance of losing their jobs to self-driving vehicles. The disappearance of driving-related jobs is not difficult to imagine, given autonomous vehicles will hit Ontario’s public roads as early as 2017 under a new pilot project announced last month.

Granted, a future free of new jobs is unlikely. Human skills will be required to create, maintain, update, and repair robotics systems, and increased automation will create complementary occupations such as remote operators for self-driving vehicles, who would take the virtual wheel in an emergency. But technology is accelerating a shift away from standard employment (full-time positions with benefits) and toward less-secure jobs (part-time and temporary roles) in an ever-changing job market.

In the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, more than half of all workers are precariously employed, facing temporary contracts, inconsistent hours, and a lack of benefits. Between Nov. 2015 and Nov. 2016, 78 per cent of new jobs created in Ontario were part-time. These trends demonstrate just how antiquated programs such as employment insurance, which were intended to support those in traditional jobs, have become: in 2015, only 28 per cent of unemployed Ontarians received regular EI benefits, compared to 82 per cent of out-of-work Canadians in 1978.

Among the province-wide trends are some regional and industry-specific issues related to automation:

High-risk manufacturing jobs in the southwest

Southwestern Ontario has been hit hard by the manufacturing sector’s decline, and many jobs that remain are on unsteady footing. For example, the Windsor-Sarnia region is home to more than 20 per cent of Ontario’s tool and die makers —  an occupation facing an 84 per cent chance of becoming automated.

High-risk resource jobs up north

Outside of management positions, the resource-based occupations that provide many jobs in northern Ontario are also at high risk of automation. Underground production and development miners, for instance, have a 67 per cent probability of seeing their roles automated — and 88 per cent of those jobs are located in the province's northeast and northwest.

No part of the province is completely safe

Ontario’s most common high-risk jobs tend not to be concentrated in particular regions. Truck driving is a significant source of jobs in the Kitchener-Waterloo-Barrie region and the Hamilton-Niagara region, with many drivers also hailing from London, Windsor, and Sarnia. Similarly, accounting technicians and bookkeepers, who face a 98 per cent probability of their professions being automated, are spread across the province: more than half of such jobs are located outside GTA.

Toronto jobs face the lowest risk of automation

Creative and knowledge-based jobs, which involve cognitive tasks not yet mastered by robotics, tend to be concentrated in metropolitan areas. Securities agents, investment dealers, and traders have a slim 1.6 per cent chance of losing their jobs to automation, and more than 80 per cent of those jobs are located in Toronto. As well, three in four architects are based in Toronto, and they face only a 1.8 per cent chance of automation.

For policy makers, there are no easy answers to the questions that automation raises. Ontario’s Second Career Strategy, launched in 2008 to help re-train laid off workers, is already a quaint relic of the labour markets and policy responses of yesteryear: it seems more and more likely that workers in the future will need an Eighth Job Strategy instead. Long-term skills development will take a back seat to nimble training and support programs that get people back into the labour market with the understanding that they may need to be retrained again in the near future. Partnerships with private-sector providers, community colleges, and universities to develop outcomes-based skills training programs should be a key priority for the province moving forward.

A recent Mowat Centre report outlined policy options that could help mitigate the effects of automation. Among them: more investments in labour market training and transferable benefits for gig-economy workers. Some jobs, such as those is nursing and home care, seem immune to automation for now — and they'll probably face increasing demand as baby boomers age. But for Ontarians who work in fields as diverse as law, financial services, and transportation, job stability and security may evaporate as technological progress marches on.

Strengthening supports for workers and those seeking employment will be a defining policy challenge for governments in the coming years. Success will position Canada and Ontario as global leaders that can train and deploy workers in high-skill, non-routine jobs relatively immune to automation. Failure will have severe consequences for the economy as a whole, as hundreds of thousands of workers see not only jobs, but also entire sectors, disappear.

Jordann Thirgood is a policy associate at the Mowat Centre, while Sunil Johal is the Centre's policy director.

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