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Robots stealing jobs, maybe

Sarah Putt, Contributor. 28 June 2018, 9:49 am

The latest on the "robots stealing jobs" front is that 31% of current jobs in New Zealand are at high risk of being automated by 2036 - replaced by robots and overtaken by algorithms.

It comes courtesy of data insights and research firm Infometrics, whose Chief Forecaster Gareth Kiernan spoke at the Industry Training Federation Conference in Wellington this week. His Megatrends presentation showed that the jobs most at risk were likely to be in the lower skilled areas, and that jobs in the provinces would be harder to replace than those in the cities, particularly Auckland.

But is all this talk about technology replacing humans in jobs bit exaggerated? For example, aren't a lot of jobs being taken up by robots because people don't want to do them?

According to an article this week in the Wall Street Journal, the US is experiencing the lowest employment rate for restaurant workers on record, and it's getting harder find staff willing to do jobs like flipping burgers and cleaning dirty grills.

To combat this, CaliBurger has invested in "Flippy", a robot that turns burgers and cleans hot greasy grills. It costs US$100,000 a robot and, despite being a little overwhelmed when it was first introduced earlier this year, Flippy is proving so successful that it will be installed in 10 outlets by the end of the year. (Flippy's novelty factor attracted so many customers when it was first installed that it couldn't handle the demand).

Meanwhile Dunkin Donuts told the WSJ that because the labour market is so tight, new staff are walking out within a month of being hired. The company conducted focus groups with former employees to find out what the most boring tasks were and then worked out a way to automate them. Apparently grinding and weighing coffee was near the top of the list, so now they use "digital refactometers" in some stores to determine the right consistency of coffee grain.

The AI Forum pointed out in its report earlier this year: "The loss of a million jobs over the next 20 to 40 years to AI does not appear to present an enormous labour market challenge. The New Zealand economy is continually creating new jobs and eliminating jobs that are no longer required." For example, in 1966 there were 21,000 New Zealanders employed as typists and stenographers and "almost all of these jobs no longer exist, however this didn't result in mass unemployment of 21,000."

When I put it to Gareth Kiernan that robots are doing the work that people don't want to do, and that historically people have found new jobs when the old ones disappear, he said it is the pace of change that can leave people behind. His history lesson came in the form of the economic reforms of the 1980s.

"The reforms were done very rapidly, with little thought given to the transition costs and, partly as a result, we saw unemployment climb to over 11% during the early 1990s. Even more importantly, there was a relatively large number of long-term unemployed (more than six months) that persisted in the economy through until the early 2000s, meaning that there was a significant pool of people who weren't contributing to the economy - arguably because they were given little or no assistance to retrain as jobs that had previously been protected or subsidised were lost."

He also notes that jobs that are lost in New Zealand might not be replaced in this country. It's difficult to predict the sectors where the new jobs will "spring up", although obvious areas are design, manufacturing and programming of machinery.

"There's certainly potential in design and programming, but manufacturing is not New Zealand's forte, and is much more likely to happen in China etc," he says.

"So, we do need to be a little cautious about the international distribution of jobs and whether, as many jobs are created in New Zealand to replace those that are automated in the near term." 

 


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