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Future literacy: read, write and code?

By Audrey Popa

Jul 26, 2018


Looking back at our recent history, there’s validity and reason for our societal obsession and almost feverish fear of machines replacing human labour for good. But will robots actually take our jobs anytime soon? Approaching what can only be seen as the third wave of automation, what’s expected to happen in the near future seems much more daunting and intimidating than any other previous job loss crisis in history. A study from Oxford University claims that a whopping total of 47 per cent of all US jobs are at risk of termination, or rather upgrading in terms of hiring—no humans need apply. But how worried should we really be?

Even though we’ve been forced to understand the detrimental effects of the previous waves of automation, it’s important to note that with each wave, there has never been any actual job losses, as gains in productivity have eventually always led to more jobs. The true issue has been the disparity in technical skills that are needed for people to find jobs, once they’ve been automated out of their own field.

The first wave of automation came with the industrial movement. Beginning with machines helping discharge humans of manual and physical labour, this wave was known for taking workers off of farms and into factories. Many people lost their jobs, but it is important to note that all this work was exhausting, both manually and mentally. The second wave helped tackle tedious and dull work, typically affecting office workers who were performing excruciatingly repetitive tasks. Think telephone operators or the women who were the original calculators at NASA prior to computers being accessible.

The third era, and the one we are fast approaching, will be one which will not affect those in the farms, or factories, or even those doing dull tasks. Rather, machine replacements will be stealing jobs from what we can categorise now as knowledge workers or decision-makers. Educated people with university backgrounds and degrees in subjects that were always considered safe—until now. To put it simply, AI is becoming better at making decisions than we are and the next few decades will see the result of this incredibly quick change. We are witness to it now, with articles gushing over how smart machines are beating us in Go and Jeopardy, but soon these machines will be completely changing the job market, in absolutely all industries.

After reading tips on how to find our first job, how do we prepare and shift our skill sets to guarantee ourselves some sort of job-centric security? Technology is changing faster than laws and policies are able to react, making it even harder for individuals to equip themselves for what’s to come. An obvious answer, but one that’s consistently sidelined, is education: teaching people what they need to know in order to have the skills they need for jobs that will be available. In the past, waves of automation haven’t been as easy to predict, but even with the future as unclear and fast-paced as it is now, education is a clear answer to help solve the disparity between the skills demanded and the skills had. It’s mandatory to learn how to read and write, thus coding only seems to be the next logical step.

Canada, with its mid-size economy and stereotypically friendly political demeanour, has set some plans forward to deal with whatever dangers lay ahead. The onus lies on provinces to decide their own educational curriculum, as long as it meets country-wide goals with testing. Due to a decline in the country’s more traditional and dominating industries, British Columbia has recognised a new fast-growing industry for itself—the tech industry. In Canada alone, there’s already a demand issue for the number of tech jobs available, without enough people applying for them.

The region’s plan moving forward into this industry begins with education. The western province will be introducing mandatory coding in its school curriculum from kindergarten all the way through to 12th grade. While at the age of 13 my generation was learning to use Word programmes to create pamphlets, it will be expected of kids to learn a variety of computing programmes, as well as learn how to debug algorithms, have skills in visual programming, and then further on in high school have the opportunity to specialise in particular areas of technology—rather than taking a one time intro to coding course.

Canada isn’t necessarily being innovative in its tactics either, as other countries such as Britain and Australia have taken similar measures within their education curriculums. The world is getting ready for the nearing and possibly most disruptive decade in history—technologically speaking. My only question now lies with how my generation will be able to not only adapt, but compete. Growing up with technology, we’ve evolved as the different versions of iPhones have come and gone. Very early on we can remember a time without constant social media and instant messaging, but are still familiar enough with the tools to know how to navigate every new update. The future is tech, and while it might be coming for your job, it’s also creating new ones.