AT THE start of the twentieth century, almost a quarter of the Australian population worked in the agricultural sector. Today, that fraction is under 3 per cent.

Australia's economy is now heavily reliant on the services sector, which represents more than 70 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) and employs four out of five Australians.

With a changing global economy and massive technology disruption, the future of the Australian workforce and the type of jobs that are available will continue to change.

"The pace of change is increasing and the countries that manage this change and get out ahead of it will be the real winners," Queensland Labor Senator Murray Watt told

Senator Watt is the chair of the Parliamentary Inquiry into the Future of Work and Workers which spent the past 12 months hearing from a raft of different industries, experts and academics about the future of employment.

Among many other things, it looked at how advances in automation, robotics, artificial intelligence and 3D printing will continue to disrupt the workforce and reshape the jobs Australians do.

"Rather than seeing the wholesale replacement of jobs, we think it's more likely to see changes to tasks within jobs," Senator Watt said.

But there's no doubt some industries will be hit harder than others by emerging technologies.

Australian jobs have long been trending towards the services industry.
Australian jobs have long been trending towards the services industry.


Much of the fear about job displacement can be traced to a 2013 University of Oxford study on the impact of automation, which was cited a number of times in the inquiry's report. The study made the prediction that 47 per cent of jobs in the US were under threat of automation in the next two decades.

"In some sectors and occupations, a degree of anxiety around the implications of automation may be well-founded," the inquiry's report released on Wednesday said. "One such occupation is driving."

It's expected that jobs such as taxi or Uber drivers and truck drivers will be wiped out by automation in the coming years.

"I think the drivers of today will be the blacksmiths of the 21st century. We don't have a lot of demand for blacksmiths anymore, and it's really hard to retrain them," Atlassian co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes, one of Australia's most successful technologists, told the inquiry.

While the inquiry received "varied and, at times, contradictory evidence" on the likely impact of automation on employment, Mr Cannon Brookes was among those that painted a bleak picture, highlighting the need to make sure those who have jobs ripped away are able to transition into new parts of the workforce.

"I hate being Chicken Little and trying to scare people, but it seems to be the only way to get

action. There will be massive job disruption," he said.

"Driving is just one of many examples where I think automation will take hold a little bit,

and then it will happen very, very fast."

Billionaire software developer Mike Cannon-Brookes. Picture: John Feder
Billionaire software developer Mike Cannon-Brookes. Picture: John Feder


Around the time one of the eight hearings throughout the inquiry was taking place, the National Australian Bank announced a whopping 6000 job cuts. The cuts - one in every five members of NAB's workforce - were announced in November, as software takes over increasingly complex tasks at the bank.

"At the same time they also announced new jobs in data and IT fields," Senator Watt recalled.

"The feedback we were getting from bank workers was that there had been no discussion about re-training or developing new skills."

These sorts of stories led the inquiry to recommend legislative change to ensure greater consultation by employers with unions and workers about the introduction of technological change.

Senator Watt believes better consultation between employers and workers will be desperately needed to reduce the social impact about the changing nature of tasks at work.

The case of NAB also shows that many white collar jobs are in the firing line. "A lot of the time people focus on blue collar jobs, and there are many blue collar jobs that are going to be disrupted, but it's happening in white collar jobs as well," Senator Watt said.

"From my own personal experience having been a lawyer, a lot of the reviewing of documents that junior lawyers have traditionally done is now being automated.

"Jobs that involve manual, routine tasks are certainly at risk," he said.

robot working in factory
robot working in factory

While emerging tech like artificial intelligence and robotics will swallow jobs, they will also create new ones. A report from PricewaterhouseCoopers in July argued that AI may create as many jobs as it destroys - perhaps even more.

"New industries arise from new technologies and the important thing is making sure Australia captures those opportunities," Senator Watt said.

The inquiry also recommended a rethink to certain industrial relations laws and broadening the definition of an employee to capture more workers in the growing gig economy.

Professor John Quiggin from the University of Queensland said the rise of the gig economy has had the "predictable outcome of enhanced employer power".

"Technological disruption simply acts as a catalyst, breaking down existing patterns of work,

and facilitating a shift towards arrangements more favourable to employers," he wrote in a submission to the inquiry.



The skills that are certainly not going out of demand in the future are the so-called soft skills that distinguish humans from machines. Things like emotional intelligence, adaptability, creativity and critical thinking that are difficult to teach or have replaced by an algorithm.

"It's the creative, caring, human empathy and judgment type tasks that are likely to see growth," Senator Watt said. "A lot of the jobs growth in Australia in recent years has already been in the caring professions like health, disability services, aged care - they're not the sort of jobs that will be taken by robots anytime soon."

Senator Watt wants to see Australia follow the lead of countries like Germany, Singapore and Canada and set up dedicated government bodies to work with industry, unions and educational institutions "to make sure the population is prepared and there is good intelligence about where jobs are growing and where they are falling," he said.

"There's no doubt that there's lots of things are changing in the workplace but in an overall sense the message from the inquiry is that the future is in our hands."

Labor Senator Murray Watt wants strong industry consultation between employers and workers to deal with technology disruption. Picture: Lukas Coch
Labor Senator Murray Watt wants strong industry consultation between employers and workers to deal with technology disruption. Picture: Lukas Coch


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