Employment & Unemployment,  Future of Work,  Research,  Technology

Canadian Workers Need More Technology, Not Less

There is little evidence that robots and other advanced technologies are displacing workers and causing technological unemployment in Canada. To the contrary, Canada’s adoption of new technology has surprisingly slowed down in recent years. That is the conclusion of a major new report on innovation and automation in Canada’s economy, from the Centre for Future Work.

The report, titled Where are the Robots?, reviews nine empirical indicators of Canadian innovation, technology adoption, and robotization. They paint a worrisome picture that Canadian businesses have dramatically reduced their innovation effort since the turn of the century, and are lagging well behind other industrial countries in putting new technology to work in the real economy.

Business Investment in R&D, 1980-2019

But the fact that automation and robotization are proceeding much slower than commonly assumed, doesn’t mean that workers’ jobs are ‘safe.’ While there is no evidence that the quantity of jobs in Canada has been undermined by new technology, there are many signs that the composition and quality of work has shifted in negative ways. Technology-intensive industries and occupations account for only a small share of new job creation. Most new work has been concentrated in human and caring services (like health care and education), and in private services – many of which (such as hospitality and retail) are characterized by insecure, poorly-paid, low-tech positions.

“Far from losing sleep over whether robots are going to take our jobs, Canadian workers should be more concerned with the slow pace of technology adoption by businesses,” says Jim Stanford, Economist and Director of the Centre for Future Work, and author of the report.

“The failure of employers to implement new technologies is causing an over-reliance on low-quality work, holding back our productivity and incomes, and squandering the potential for safer jobs and more leisure time.”

The report makes 6 policy recommendations to improve innovation and technology adoption in Canada, including reforming fiscal incentives, expanding publicly-funded R&D, nurturing industries that use more robots and machinery, and giving workers more say in how technological change is implemented in workplaces.

“Technology will be neither the hero nor the villain in the future of work – it all depends how technology is used, and how the costs and benefits are shared. But the reality is that Canada’s technological performance is flagging, fast. Revitalizing technological innovation and adoption, and ensuring that it enhances jobs not displaces workers, is vital to our future economic and social progress,” Stanford concluded.

Please see the full report, Where are the Robots? The Surprising Deceleration of Technology in Canadian Workplaces. This report was published by the Centre for Future Work’s PowerShare project, in partnership with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and with support from the Atkinson Foundation.

Jim Stanford is Economist and Director of the Centre for Future Work. He divides his time between Sydney, Australia and Vancouver, Canada. Jim is one of Canada’s best-known economic commentators. He served for over 20 years as Economist and Director of Policy with Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector trade union.