The Booms and Busts Must Be a Thing of the Past for Alberta
The “green shoots” of a slowly recovering Alberta economy are showing. However, the old jobs are not coming back in the numbers or the skill levels as before.
Automation is coming to workplaces along with the return of business activity. I don’t have any brilliant personal insights about how who, and where this workplace automation is happening in the Alberta economy but I have a sense of why and when.
Notwithstanding the “lower for longer” recession resulting in significant layoffs, Alberta still has the highest per capita labour costs in the country. Our business sectors have some of the worst productivity performances in the world, especially in the mega-project industrial construction areas.
Energy investment is stagnant the world over but while Alberta’s oil sands have been an enormous magnet for capital investment…that seems to be in the past! It has been recently reported in the JWN Energy “Digital Oilfield Outlook Report”, that Alberta’s oilpatch is “…on track to see its biggest two-year capital spending decline in its 70-year history.” Ouch.
Slowdowns in capital investment in Alberta is not just due to low oil prices, carbon taxes, supply gluts from more efficient extraction techniques and better enforcement of responsible development regulations. These have impacts on business certainty but to lay all the blame there is simple-minded, and usually partisan political thinking.
Alberta’s labour and other costs are too high, our productivity and quality of work are too low. Our commitment to bringing projects in on time and on the budget has not been impressive, and our investment in innovation, especially ecological technologies, is tepid at best. Those are the major reasons for sluggish capital investment in the energy sector.
Perceptions Are Stronger Than Facts
Those macro issues hampering investment are being addressed in the GO Productivity PAAD Initiative. But what are we doing to prepare people for this automation disruption to their working life and the declining availability of well-paying skilled jobs? The answer is…NOT MUCH!
The Trump administration is simply denying automation disruption in the job market will happen. Not surprising given the President’s naive campaign promise of bringing jobs back from lower cost foreign countries. That is not the problem. Robotic automation at home is replacing more jobs than offshoring, regardless of the misleading political rhetoric to the contrary.
And people know this, even though they voted for the delusional hope of the Trump campaign promise to return manufacturing and coal jobs. These same people also voted against the political and industrial elites that have brought this angst and anxiety upon them as employment reliant people. The typical Trump supporter also embraced the idea and voted for, disruption in the political class and culture of America. And boy, they sure got it.
It’s Not Just About Projects…It’s Also About People.
A new study reported on in the Big Think website notes 41% of American workers are fearing being replaced by automated technology. When you look at the Industry Sectors where the fear is highest, you see Publishing where massive job losses are already happening. Retail sees Amazon doing to shopping malls what iTunes did to the recording industry. Construction automation is coming too, but we are seeing an emerging focus on worker competency and continuous learning as tradespersons struggle to adapt.
The least anxious sectors are Government. Someone has to provide and process all the programs needed to handle the growing social fallout from automation disruption impacts on families and workers. Insurance workers are not anxious but their employers sure are. We are seeing insurers facing more and larger claims due to climate change impacts and other kinds of property losses resulting from social decay.
The survey found the roles where workers are most afraid of disruptive technology impacts are Temporary Employees as we see the trend to the “gig economy”. Consultants are worried, especially those who provide routine commoditized services like tax preparation. Junior Management is under the gun as the middle manager disappears and the sale of goods become more direct from manufacturers to consumers. Consumer goods are mostly automated and on-line now as management becomes mostly about delivery and returns logistics, soon to be via autonomous vehicles.
Thinking About Disruption and What to Do?
So all this means we have a lot of thinking to do about the social, economic, education and political implications of all this…just to name a few wicked problems. There are said to be three lines of thinking about all this. First is disruption is good. While certain jobs are bound to disappear others will appear to pick up the slack and even add to prosperity…as in the past. The next line of thought is
The next line of thought is disruption is bad. Companies are automating jobs so fast that fewer employees are needed and increased productivity is now unrelated to job growth as it was in the past. The last line of thinking is disruption is inevitable. We have to accept more jobs will be lost than will be created and that means our social safety net concept needs revising. We may have to consider a guaranteed annual income approach.
We have been through disruptions in the past. Most notably moving from an agrarian to an industrial economic base. Same things happened when we went from the industrial economy to a knowledge-based and information economy. Old jobs disappeared and new ones were invented. In this current transition, it’s safe to say the most of the new jobs that may be forthcoming in the automated intelligence economy have not been invented yet. And, it’s safe to say, there is no guarantee there will be enough of them to take up the slack of unemployed industrial workers.
We Don’t Just Have an Anxiety Issue, We Also Have a Social Design Challenge
This challenge is not about negotiating competing rights of investors, owners, and workers. It is not about debating adversarial hyper-partisan competing policy positions. It is not about trying to stop disruptions as neo-Luddites. It is about enabling workers in adapting to learn new skills and to come to grips with the need for continuous learning. These are the new table-stakes for many workers if they are going to stay employable.
It is also not about maximizing profits for the few but rather finding ways for optimizing growth for both investors, business owners, resource owners, workers that seek to serve the greater good, including environmental stewardship, through the development of applied individual talents.
It is also not about maximizing profits for the few but rather finding ways for optimizing growth for all, including investors, business owners, resource owners, and workers. Optimization seeks to serve the greater good, including environmental stewardship, through the development of applied and applicable individual talents.
There has to be a revival of an “old-fashioned” mindset where the economy is there in the serve of the society, not like today, where is seems to be the other way around. That means politics will come into play. It is as vital that we elect governors who are wise, empathetic, compassionate, life-experienced, ethical people whoare able to embrace uncertainty and be open to ideas, not shackled by dogma or ideology. This is imparative if we,as a society, are to be successful in the systemic co-creation of viable solutions to respond to the reality of disruptive automation technology on people’s lives.
Collective Wisdom or Pooled Ignorance
Let us pray for a collective wisdom and not pooled ignorance of the voting populous going forward as we strive to expressed ourselves in a revived and revised sense of informed and engaged citizenship. We must restore and rely on the foundational principles of our mature democratic system, unfettered by outside manipulation and agitation, or desecrated by the self-interested insider charlatan elites.
To me it all comes down to rejecting the false trade-off we have accepted between Power and Love. Nor is it the power of love or the love of power that is the way forward. We need them both as an integrated whole, not polar and competing opposites.
Martin Luther King best: “Power without Love is reckless and abusive. Love without Power is sentimental and aenemic.” He went on to say “…we have to get this right…Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”
We can be so much better as people and as a society, if we citizens exercise our democratic rights and responsibilities between elections as well as at elections. But this vigilance must always in the pursuit of the greater good. Our efforts and striving must be toward workable equitable solutions, and not just further enabling, and even celebrating, individual gains and greed as the most worthy of goals.
We are a long way from being ready to take on this greater good common cause. Uncertainty spawns doubt, indecision, heistition and insecurity but that cannot be excuse for wilful blindness, ignorance or inertia. This means new leadership must be found who can rise up and start the conversations.
We all need to start talking about and get on with designing a new political culture that provides a more equitable economic system, that creates genuine prosperity where protecting the environment is integral. And we must also return to governing where seeing social well-being and cohesion is a basic purpose of representative democracy.
There is not “they” in this work, only “us.” I’d like to close with this thought by Lily Tomlin. “I always wondered why somebody doesn’t do something about that. Then I realized I was somebody.