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Preparing for massive job disruption

IkeaOne in three jobs in Australia could be automated by 2030, when machines are expected to displace people currently working as cashiers, drivers, machine operators, butchers and labourers.

This is according to a recent report by jobs website, Adzuna, which drew on job vacancy and salary data in conjunction with a government study, Future workforce trends in NSW: Emerging technologies and their potential impact, to examine the impact of automation on Australia’s employment landscape.

The findings echo a 2017 report commissioned by Google, The Automation Advantage, which suggests strenuous physical and routine administrative jobs will disappear sooner rather than later, as they can increasingly be done without human workers.

But that same report suggests Australians need to embrace, rather than fear, automation.

“If we get it right, automation could significantly boost Australia’s productivity and national income – potentially adding up to $2.2 trillion in value to our economy by 2030,” the report states.

The benefits of automation include an 11 per cent decrease in workplace injuries, as dangerous manual tasks are taken over by machines, and increased job satisfaction among 62 per cent of low-skilled workers, presumably due to their transition into higher-paying, more engaging jobs.

But what does ‘getting it right’ mean exactly? It means retraining and re-hiring workers whose jobs are displaced by machines. And even the Google report acknowledges that this is not a given.  

“Australia requires a strong policy framework to ensure workers at risk of being displaced are redeployed,” the report states.

That framework is currently non-existent, according to HR expert Rhonda Brighton-Hall.

“At the moment, we’re still trying to decide whether we should stop [automation] or not,” she tells IRW.  

Brighton-Hall points to countries like Sweden that are actively experimenting with six-hour workdays and other new ways of working. In contrast, Australia is not talking about how work is changing, although changes are indeed happening.

“We’re just bumbling along and hoping it works out, rather than talking about the structural impacts. We need to make the conversation as inclusive as we possibly can,” she says, calling for input from government, industry, education and everyday people.

“It’s our shared future and we need everyone to weigh in.”

Atlassian warns of massive job disruption

A public debate may finally be happening. Atlassian co-founder and co-CEO Michael Cannon-Brookes was among those who spoke to the Select Committee on the Future of Work and Workers about the impact of automation at a public hearing in Melbourne on March 13.

“[Fundamentally], automation of jobs is going to happen. We need to plan for that, think about that and spend research dollars on what that is going to mean for city design, infrastructure and so many other things,” Cannon-Brookes said, adding that people should be prepared for “massive job disruption”.

The Senate is due to issue a report by June 21. In the meantime, one of the few businesses openly discussing the impact of automation – perhaps, unsurprisingly – is Ikea Australia, the flatpack furniture giant with Swedish roots. The retailer in February conducted a study on the future of work, which found that automation and future job loss is the number one concern among Australian workers.

“Workplaces need to prepare today for the needs of the future, particularly when it comes to recruitment and careers,” Ikea’s HR manager for Australia, Richard Harries, tells IRW.

“We know that technology will impact the way we work, but we choose to see it from a perspective of how it can enhance the way we work.”

For instance, Harries says technology is already speeding up the process of kitchen planning in Ikea stores, which is currently a very administrative-heavy task.

“Now it’s evolving into a digital planning service, which allows our workers to spend more time sharing their interior design expertise with customers. We see it as a value-add,” he says.

Shopping centre owner Mirvac also sees benefits to automating certain parts of its business.

“We see automation helping to augment employee performance and aid productivity, and we’re actively partnering with experts in this area to further our analysis. However, it’s too early for us to comment on what specific impacts and/or opportunities will be,” a spokesperson for Mirvac tells IRW.

According to the spokesperson, around 20 different job “families” at Mirvac will be impacted by automation in some way in the future. But the property giant believes its investment in recent years in creating a workplace that encourages innovation, collaboration and flexibility will help workers adapt.  

“We’ve made sure our employees have access to the tools and systems that allow them to work from anywhere, and we encourage our employees to adopt flexible work practices, such as working from home one a day a week or adjusting their start and finish times,” the spokesperson says.

“Hiring for jobs that don’t exist”

Harries says Ikea has always invested heavily in training and upskilling employees and that this focus will help ensure workers do not get left behind by automation. The retailer aims to have an internal promotion rate of 80 per cent, even during times of expansion.

“Today approximately 60 per cent of our co-workers have had three different jobs. We’re always encouraging them to try new roles and change functions,” he says.

Harries’ own background is testament to this. He started at Ikea 10 years ago in the food business, before becoming store manager at Ikea’s Logan store in Queensland and then HR manager for Australia.

Ikea Australia will hire 16,000 employees over the next 12 years, and Harries says “transferable skills”, such as creativity, innovation and interpersonal savvy will be as important, if not more so, than any given degree, technical know-how or particular work experience.

As he explains: “We’re hiring for jobs that don’t exist today”.

 

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