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Technology, teaching and the future of work

This article was first published by The Drum Online on Monday 8 September 2014. 

Ours is a democracy, and we have choices. The economist and writer Tyler Cowen described what it would look like if we get those choices wrong: a society divided into two camps. Those who have the ability to work with machines, and those who are replaced by them.

It is a chilling warning that there are few more important issues for policymakers to grapple with than the impact of the rise of technology on the world of work. The capacity of new technology to create and destroy jobs at the same time is a major catalyst of modern economic and social change. The most important question is whether technological change creates more jobs than it destroys.

This is the issue taken up by the globally renowned Pew Research Center in a fascinating recent study titled AI, Robotics and the Future of Jobs. In remarkable detail and scope, Pew surveys the impact on employment of advances in automation, robotics, 3D printing and artificial intelligence.

Consulting nearly 2000 experts, they find that technology will displace types of work but that history shows advances are net creators of jobs; that entirely new types of work will require uniquely human capabilities; that technology will redefine our relationship to work in a socially beneficial way; and that we have the capacity to shape the future through our choices and not just be shaped by it.

But on the downside they conclude that some of the detrimental impacts we’ve seen so far in blue collar industries are about to reach white collar workers; and that while highly skilled workers will “succeed wildly”, more people will be displaced into low-skilled service industry jobs or confined to the scrap heap. In other words, those good developments won’t reach everyone without active policy to make it so.

The technologists who contributed to the Pew Research Center report were not as-one in their conclusions about labour market impacts of robots and artificial intelligence. Some anticipated a positive effect; others a negative.

But on one point, the Pew experts were nearly unanimous: that education systems around the world are not up to the challenge of preparing workers for future jobs. Not enough students are leaving education with the capabilities necessary for the rapidly-evolving, technological nature of future employment. This is exactly how we would end up with an economy where machines work for the best-educated and against the rest.

Their advice is clear: if we want to build productivity, if we want to build a society that is dynamic, creative and able to adapt to new advances, then we need broader and deeper pools of human capital. This is why the Abbott Government’s attempts to price people out of universities are so short-sighted.

In light of the technological needs of the future, there’s never been a greater need to widen both access and participation in higher education. We certainly should not be limiting opportunity to fewer and fewer people in the way that Tony Abbott, Christopher Pyne and the shrill conservative commentariat want to.

Since the work of American Professor Alan Krueger almost two decades ago, economists have observed that what’s known as “skills-biased technological change” is a dominant driver of growing inequality. It’s skills-biased technological change that explains the phenomenon in the US today where the average farm earns about $125,000 per employee in revenue, where the tech-giant Google earns more than $1 million per employee.

This change jumps oceans. Without a more highly-skilled workforce in Australia, we risk falling victim. The US effect dubbed “The Jaws of the Snake”, where massive advances in labour productivity since the turn of this century have not been accompanied by increases in employment, is a major challenge. In two recent speeches, Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen warned against our country heading down this path.

Of course, the Abbott cabinet – to the extent it has thought about this at all – would see nothing fundamentally wrong in a wave of technology that delivers higher wages and profits to the best-off in our society. Mission accomplished, you might say.

But for Labor we know this makes our historic task of spreading opportunity – especially higher education – to the whole society more urgent than ever. We sign up to Michael Ignatieff’s view that transformational leadership can help determine whether technological advance benefits the masses or is concentrated in fewer hands.

There is still time to avoid greater inequality and division and unfairness. There is still time for a higher education system ready for the technological demands of the jobs of the future. But not with the Abbott Government’s approach to universities.

About Jim Chalmers

Jim Chalmers

Jim Chalmers MP is Shadow Minister for Finance, and the federal Labor Member for Rankin. Prior to his election he was the Executive Director of the Chifley Research Centre and, before that, Chief of Staff to the Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer. He has a PhD in political science and international relations and a first class honours degree in public policy. His book Glory Daze was published in July 2013 and he tweets as @JEChalmers .

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