BusinessTechnology
March 4, 2020

The Future of Work… and Workers

There is no employment sector in Canada that is immune to or unaffected by the changing nature of work. Employers and employees alike in the public, private, and third sectors are facing pressures to adapt to a new and evolving work environment. We all see evidence of this transformation in our own workplaces. Positions that used to be mainstays in offices across the country are being phased out. Employees are working with employers and unions to find new, creative paths forward. Unions are fighting to maintain complement while many employees are looking for challenging new opportunities. To the extent that many of the jobs that unions have protected become obsolete, the situation has the potential to create tension between a union’s interests and those of its members. For their part, employers are looking for versatile, skills-oriented, responsive workforces at the same time that they maximize the benefits and opportunities presented by digital technology and artificial intelligence (AI). All the while, the importance of human resources, loyalty, and the relationship of trust between employers and employees should not be understated or cast aside. These are complicated times.

Much of the conversation around the changing nature of work focuses on the capacity of AI and digital technology to transform the workforce by automating tasks that have traditionally been performed by humans. We face pressing ethical, financial, and existential questions about the benefits and costs of increased automation. There are very few, if any, jobs that can be placed firmly beyond the reach of automation. A report released by the Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Ryerson University in 2016 stated that, while automation has been thought to be restricted to jobs comprised of manual labour or routine tasks, advances in artificial intelligence have allowed automation to take the place of human decision-making.[1]

The “disruptive” nature of the changing workforce is often couched in negative, almost helpless language, as though the spread of automation, and the proliferation of gigs and contracts as opposed to steady work and indeterminate positions, is happening against our will and that of policymakers. Let’s not exaggerate, overstate, or misrepresent the situation: there are still indeterminate public service jobs, there are still tenured professors, and some people will work in the same field for the duration of their careers. But these types of experiences are becoming less and less the norm, and there is a palpable lack of certainty about the future.

It’s not all doom and gloom. At least on the surface, public discourse has shifted towards an enlightened acceptance of the need for a sustainable, green economy, for example. However, it is not clear how we will get there or whether the political will exists to usher in the short and medium-term changes that are necessary to achieving long-term change. To be fair, political will is a two-way street: it is partly about leadership and vision, but it is also about what we will let politicians get away with and still stand a chance of re-election. As voters, we have a significant role to play in holding politicians to account for their actions and inactions.

In supporting the transition to a less certain work world, educational institutions have a major role to play. Universities, colleges, institutes, schools, and workshops of all kinds have an incentive to train students and clients to think critically and independently. In these uncertain times, there could be a tendency to emphasize hard skills, such as data analysis, over soft ones, like diplomacy and teamwork, because the hard skills seem more tangible. But we need both kinds of skills, particularly in the public service where speaking truth to power and giving frank advice require a high degree of emotional intelligence, timing, intuition, and integrity. For elected officials, conjuring up the political will to get things done is much easier with the support of a strong, independent public service that offers straight-up advice on how the elected government can implement its agenda. It is imperative that public administration schools, as well as any and all other educational facilities that are training current and future public servants, consider the complex array of hard and soft skills that public servants need to navigate the new world and enable responsible policymaking.


[1] CBC News. 2016. “42% of Canadian jobs at high risk of being affected by automation, new study suggests.” Available at: https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/automation-job-brookfield-1.3636253

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Lori Turnbull

Dr. Lori Turnbull is the Director of the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University and Deputy Editor of Canadian Government Executive.

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