Automation has been happening for a very long time – since the buggy got rid of its horse and acquired some horsepower, since dirty dishes could be loaded into a machine to be washed.
However, the scale and pace of it is increasing – the horseless buggy, for example, is now a driverless car. Automation has changed – and continues to change – every aspect of work. It is affecting how and what our children learn; how adults young and not-so-young are educated and skilled for first one career and then another; and how our core services are delivered.
A new report by McKinsey Australia, Australia’s automation opportunity: Reigniting productivity and inclusive income growth, says automation technologies such as machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI) and advanced robotics will disrupt workforces across the economy in the coming decade. An estimated 3.5 million to 6.5 million full-time equivalent jobs could be affected, with as many as 5 million workers needing to change professions.
US political veteran John Podesta joined UTS Vice-Chancellor Professor Attila Brungs, business executive Diane Smith-Gander and McKinsey report co-author Charlie Taylor in a panel discussion, moderated by ABC 7.30 political editor Laura Tingle, to consider the challenges and opportunities ahead. In particular, the aim was to explore business, government and education perspectives.
My optimism is driven by the knowledge of the creativity of our young graduates – and how they are prepared to shape their destinies in ways my generation would never had thought possible.
Professor Attila Brungs
Professor Brungs said as an education leader he felt “a huge sense of grave responsibility and of optimism. In large part my optimism is driven by the knowledge of the creativity of our young graduates – and how they are prepared to shape their destinies in ways my generation would never had thought possible.”
However, he acknowledged the report’s conclusion that without a concerted effort to support displaced workers with retraining and new jobs, unemployment could rise by up to 2.5 percent and income inequality could widen by up to 30 percent.
Podesta, who was chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and chair of both President Barack Obama’s transition team and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, sounded a warning about the potential for social dislocation and an increase in inequality in both the US and Australia. However, Podesta also said society stood to gain from automation’s impact on public services.
“The technologies and the technological applications can deliver a better product from government and that's an exciting possibility. Government, by the way, lags in productivity gains ... that's a global trend.”
Podesta anticipated a better growth model and a stronger economy: “I think it's good for people, first and foremost, but I think it's good for business and it will produce better government service at the end of the day.”
Smith-Gander, a director of the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) and non-executive director at AGL Energy and Wesfarmers, said Australian companies have had many opportunities to automate but not all sectors have.
“Why not? Why hasn’t business made these investments?”
“We’ve got such a great opportunity ahead of us … we in Australia think: 25 million people, it’s a great little market. We all stand around the fringes and we look at ourselves internally. We need to rotate, we need to look out … we’re not globalising our economy.”
Professor Brungs said the generation attending universities now are “au fait with the information age” and have a focus on creating new things – “some 12,000 UTS students have had an entrepreneurial experience in the last three years. Many of them are thinking about companies on a global stage right from the word go.”
He said schools needed to do more in promoting the knowledge that would underpin digital literacy and in building the kind of resilience that will allow people to navigate career transitions over their lifetime.
Taylor, in response to the question of whether Australia is up to the “huge skill shift” required by automation, acknowledged the challenge and said it underpinned McKinsey’s report.
“Capturing the potential upside of automation and positive outcomes for workers will not magically happen on its own. To overcome the risks and benefit from the opportunities, Australia needs the twin national efforts of accelerating automation while ensuring social inclusion, with national mechanisms for policy and coordination.”