Why you should worry about disappearing jobs

Why you should worry about disappearing jobs

My 16-year-old son wants to go to university and be a banker or economist after he graduates.

As a father, all I could do without dampening his enthusiasm is to encourage him to study hard for his O levels this year.

The jobs, I said, will come when they come.

But in my mind, I would prefer him to be a journalist than an economist or banker.

And it is not just because of the satisfaction of seeing my son follow in my footsteps. A journalist has better job security than the economist, according to an Oxford University study published six months ago.

The study found that there is a 0.43 probability of economists being replaced by computers in the next two decades. Journalists have better odds – 0.11.

Last week, The Straits Times looked at how some middle-skilled jobs are already disappearing here and what jobs are at risk of vanishing in the future.

In the report, a former marine mechanic explained why he quit to become a taxi driver, as his pay had stagnated at just below $2,000 a month.

The report drew mixed reactions. A reader blamed the Government for letting foreigners snatch jobs from Singaporeans.

Another said the newspaper should not have given the impression that driving taxis is a secure job. The reality is, we will never know which jobs are safe.

Taxi drivers may well disappear when driverless cars hit the roads. Indeed, the Oxford study puts the probability of that happening in the next 20 years as 0.89, which is very high.

But for the taxi driver interviewed, it provided a way out of wage stagnation – for now.

Economists call the trend of the shrinking middle-skilled workforce “job polarisation”.

According to Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam who sounded the warning bell last month, Singapore has been spared the effects of the trend because of the tight labour market. That is, displaced workers have been able to find jobs.

Still, there are at least five reasons why we should be worried.

First, large numbers of Singaporeans are affected.

A close look at the composition of the resident labour force showed that there are now 48,000 fewer production craftsmen and semi-skilled factory workers than 13 years ago.

This happened even as the resident labour force grew by more than 470,000 workers.

Second, chunks of whole sectors in other countries have disappeared.

Labour economist Randolph Tan of SIM University pointed out that most of the eight million Americans who lost their jobs in the 2007-2008 global financial crisis are not getting their jobs, or jobs with the same pay, back.

“The evaporation of most of those jobs was the loudest warning that the polarisation would change the entire landscape of jobs in a big way,” he warned.

Third, the displaced workers may not be able to do the jobs that survived or fill the new vacancies created.

Take, for example, what is happening in banking.

Recruitment firm Hays said in its latest annual salary guide that the demand for risk and compliance professionals here is so high that pay hikes of 20 to 25 per cent when they change jobs are common.

But the skills are so specialised that not everyone, including existing bank officers, can do the job of compliance officers.

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