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Which workers will lose out to robots

Categories:Latest News
Janine Gartner

A phone call to customer service or a trip to the mall proves what experts have been telling us for decades – automation is changing the work landscape by eliminating some jobs and creating others. Which careers are most at risk, and which are safe? Bay of Plenty Times Weekend reporter Dawn Picken talked to professionals from both categories who don’t expect to be replaced by robots anytime soon.

Safe Haven/Safe Job

Tucked behind Greerton’s RSA and Super Liquor on Cameron Rd is Hanmer Clinic. The charitable trust providing outpatient treatment for alcohol and other drug dependence opened in 1999. According to a 2013 Oxford University study called The Future of Employment, people who work here – mental health and substance abuse social workers – have one of the safest jobs on the planet, facing a less than one percentage point chance of automation.

Clinical co-ordinator Jill Knowler shows me the facility, expanded in recent years to include more offices and meeting space. A large group room is decorated with clients’ artwork and banners displaying The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics’ Anonymous and the Serenity Prayer in English and Te Reo Maori. Chairs are stacked against a wall, ready for up to 30 people at once.

“I think I hold the record for our early recovery group; I had 27. Normally, we have about 10,” says Knowler, who has worked as a counsellor for 10 years.

She says technology can bridge gaps of time and distance, but remote therapy sessions via Skype or other apps can’t replace the human touch. A high percentage of Hanmer’s clients have suffered trauma, anxiety and depression.

“So it’s not just about helping them stopping substance abuse; it’s so much larger than that. I think a caring touch and a caring approach where the client can see the concern through your body language, tone of voice and just from your listening, being attentive.”

Knowler embraces technology, using Skype to connect with her two sons in London, but would need to see evidence-based research before deploying new applications for the approximately 180 people on Hanmer’s books.

“I’m open-minded … let’s not waste people’s time. Let’s give them the best we can.”

Knowler says clients tell her what helps recovery most is shared camaraderie with others who have a substance abuse problem. The group room is where laughter, tears, storytelling and hugs pave the road to recovery.

“I’ve read … we give off energy to each other and I’m not sure how we would be able to transfer that through technology without first having a connection with them.”

So while someone in crisis could sign up for online counselling and spend $25 to $125 for an email exchange or $100 to $250 for remote talk therapy, Knowler feels her job is safe.

“Just that beautiful side of human beings listening and showing care and compassion and not feeling rushed, or ‘I should be better by now.’ I don’t think technology could ever replace that.”

Future of Employment

Other occupations on the Future of Employment study deemed safest from automation are those involving relationship-building such as occupational therapist, dietician and nutritionist; physician and surgeon; and clergy. Creative fields such as artist, scientist and business strategist were also considered safe (though computers can generate original art).

The World Economic Forum in 2015 predicted 47 per cent of all occupations could be affected by automation.

A study published in late 2015 by Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand (CA ANZ) and the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research (NZIER) predicted 46 per cent of all New Zealand jobs were at risk of automation over the next two decades. The study said about 75 per cent of labouring jobs have a “high risk” of automation and about 12 per cent of professional positions will be lost.

Regions would be hardest hit, with Canterbury facing highest risk of job losses due to automation, followed by Waikato, Manawatu and Otago. Categories most at risk included manufacturing, mining and trades.

The New Zealand study also found accountants and tax preparers at high likelihood of job losses due to automation. Researchers said the number of Kiwi accountants had risen almost 6 per cent between 2012 and 2014, but the trend is set to reverse in the coming decade as automation takes hold.

“Such findings reinforce the need to continue to reposition the profession as trusted strategic business advisers, who can offer significantly more to businesses than pure accounts processing and financial statement preparation,” according to the NZIER/CA ANZ study.

Janine Gartner agrees. The managing director of Tax Agent 99, a Mount Maunganui-based mobile accounting and bookkeeping firm says she and her two employees plus a contractor use the popular accounting software XERO, which she believes can’t replace human expertise and advice.

“We actually look at AI [artificial intelligence] as a positive because then we’re going to have more time on the front lines, actually being advisers to our clients. We can be there for our clients when they need to purchase an asset, or maybe they’re going through a hard time … technology gives us more time to be looking over our clients’ businesses and adding value to them.”

Gartner, who’s also a regional director for the Bay of Plenty Bookkeepers Association, says her own business has grown in the three years since she started it to include about 300 customers.

“This was only meant to be a part-time job. But a lot more people are going out and starting businesses because they’re wanting flexibility and more time with their families.”

Technology has trade-offs. It encourages innovation, creates new jobs in emerging industries and can fill gaps in labour-intensive industries such as agriculture. University of Waikato experts predicted robots will be commonplace on orchards in about a decade and will address labour shortages around harvest time.

Te Puna-based Robotics Plus is developing solutions such as the Autonomous Multipurpose Mobile Platform robot (AMMP) to harvest kiwifruit. One robot is estimated to be able to do the work of at least 12 labourers. Similar technology is being developed for use on other crops.

Other innovations include wireless sensors and drones on farms to collect data about products, property and weather. Dairy NZ reports 20-22 robotic dairy systems are in place around New Zealand.

An article in the Guardian earlier this year quoted Martin Ford, author of Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future who said jobs most at risk are those which are routine, repetitive and predictable. Think telemarketers, fast food workers and cashiers.

Jobs Outlook

Directors of two local staffing firms and a career counsellor we spoke with say it’s difficult to gauge the impact of technological disruption.

Phill Van Syp, managing director of 1st Call Recruitment says he knows of one company in Auckland where several hundred workers lost jobs earlier this year when machinery was automated. 1st Call specialises in placements for positions in fields such as civil construction, trades and office support.

Van Syp says his firm also supplies couriers for postal jobs, whose numbers shrank after NZ Post introduced electric buggies.

“But they’ve seen increases because of online buying and that’s good for us.”

He says warehouse jobs called “pick packers” are plentiful, too, because companies need staff to fulfil online orders.

Despite the introduction of driverless cars, the trucking industry faces a labour shortage, Uber is recruiting drivers in the Bay and Van Syp doesn’t expect other transport professionals to be easily replaced.

“Would you want to jump in a car that’s got no one in the front seat? It’s supposed to be safer and they’ve got all this technology, but would you jump into a plane with no pilot? The human element is always … okay, they do make mistakes, but it’s always nice to know there’s a beating heart that feels for everyone in the back and cares if it [the plane] crashes.”

Local Calls

While the Oxford study gives telemarketers a 99 per cent chance of obsolescence via automation, career practitioner and member of the Career Development Association of New Zealand Chris Grunwell says new customer service positions are still becoming available.

“People are demanding more and more personalised service. They don’t like ‘Press 1’ or ‘Press 2’ so a lot of call centres are setting up in New Zealand with New Zealanders.”

Fairfax last month was set to open a new inbound call centre in Palmerston North after a contract in the Philippines expired. Vodafone reports a mix of call centres nationally and in the Philippines. Head of HR Katie Williams says the Kiwi team tends to focus on customers with more technical inquiries such as moving house or getting fibre installed.

The Staffroom director Jill Cachemaille says call centres have relocated from other parts of New Zealand to Tauriko because the Bay is more cost-effective than the big city.

“It’s great for our economy because it means people are getting positions. We have quite a few inquiries from people who want to find out about setting up call centres in Tauranga.”

Retail Robots

During a recent weekday at Bayfair, shoppers at Countdown wait with trolleys and baskets full of groceries. Two human cashiers scan and bag customers’ items, but most of us wait in the shorter self-scanner queue. I successfully scan half a dozen items before hearing, “Unexpected item in the bagging area.” I’ve stuffed up. I can hone my scanning skills at the nearby Kmart, too, leading me to wonder how many cashiers have lost jobs to robots.

Retail New Zealand did not have statistics about the impact of automation on retail jobs. But spokesman Greg Harford says total number of retail employees has increased.

“We think this is because the population is growing and because the retail sector is expanding to take account of that. Additionally, automation often means that there are new, and often higher-skilled job opportunities created elsewhere in a business, so it’s not necessarily the case that increased automation leads to a loss of jobs.”

Harford says the Bay of Plenty has 13,300 jobs in the retail sector and 2247 outlets now compared with 12,000 jobs and 2130 outlets in 2013. Nationally, there are 212,000 jobs in retail compared with 195,000 in 2013, according to Retail NZ.

Harford says the sector is still under huge competitive pressure as local retailers compete with each other, with national chains and with internet stores. And business owners worry about impending increases in the minimum wage.

“This could lead to changes or reductions in jobs over time, and encourage businesses to look to increase automation levels in order to cut costs.”

Relevance in the Digital Age

The Staffroom director Jill Cachemaille says all job applicants need to stay active and have someone else look over their CV. She says plenty of roles are available (see Labour Market Statistics), and attitude often determines who gets the job.

“It really comes down to behavioural things rather than skills. In an interview situation if you have five candidates with similar skills and experience, the employer is going to hire on how they connect with that person.”

Futurists say resilient jobs involve creativity, connection and a degree of unpredictability (like a plumber called to an emergency). Job counsellors say resilient workers will have winning attitudes and a willingness to diversify their careers.

Job Security

Back at Hanmer Clinic, Jill Knowler says clients trying to break the addiction cycle need real-life connection to find a sober path and stay there. She says remote therapy may be cost-effective – at first.

“It would look good on paper, but I can’t see it working for the long term.”

Universal Basic Income a Solution?

Proponents of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) say a guaranteed minimum salary may become necessary as advances in artificial intelligence and automation continue to disrupt the employment scene. Gareth Morgan (whose TOP party failed to win enough votes for a seat in Parliament) touted a policy initially guaranteeing $200 per week to every 18-23 year-old. Other proposed UBI schemes provide money to every member of society regardless of age, working status or income level.

The Labour Party last November issued a report titled The Future of Work that proposed investigating a UBI, but stopped short of endorsing it. The document states, “For now, we are focused on improving income support for children and families, making changes to address stand-down periods, and reducing the administrative burden of going on
and off benefits.” Finance Minister Grant Robertson was unavailable for comment about current UBI plans before deadline.

Labour party’s Future of Work report: click here

Labour Market Statistics

Government numbers released earlier this week showed the Bay of Plenty had the nation’s second highest employment growth rate by region, up 13,300 jobs (9.2 per cent). Waikato was ranked highest, adding 21,600 jobs (up 9.4 per cent). The Bay’s unemployment rate for the September 2017 quarter was 4.7 per cent, down .4 per cent from the previous year.

Nationally, unemployment fell to 4.6 per cent for the September 2017 quarter, down .2 percentage points from the previous quarter. Wage rates grew 1.9 per cent.

Source: Stats NZ

Article sourced from Bay of Plenty Times