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.

Fourth, and even if the jobs do not disappear, they may not pay as well as they used to.

The number of technicians and junior professionals in the resident labour force jumped to 422,700 in 2012, from 281,200 in 2001.

Their monthly gross median pay was $2,642 in 2001, higher than the median of $2,387 for the resident labour force as a whole.

But by 2012, their $3,183 median gross monthly salary had fallen behind the resident labour force's median of $3,480. These workers did not enjoy the extent of wage hikes seen by their peers.

Fifth, the pace of change is chilling.

When I started working in 1994 with a newly minted university degree, professionals and managers made up about one in five in the labour force. Now, it is one in three.

The room is now more crowded. And the competition does not just come from other workers.

The Economist predicted in a special issue this week that the jobs destroyed by robots may outweigh new jobs created.

"If automation absorbs jobs previously reserved for young people, who have not yet had time to build up skills, it will stop them from acquiring those skills, and its destructive effects will reverberate down the years," it wrote.

Mr Tharman said in the Budget debate round-up speech last month: "No one knows for sure what jobs are going to be around in 20 or 30 years."

But it is not entirely a grim picture in Singapore. There is cause for some optimism.

The Government is bent on creating jobs in growth areas such as advanced manufacturing and social services.

There is also a visible shift in the education system to prepare students for life, not just to pass exams and land jobs.

This is done through character building and instilling values and skills such as having an inquisitive mind, interacting with and respecting others.

Mr Tharman called these "obsolescence-proof" skills. These skills will help future workers, like my son, land jobs that may not even exist today.

Even for vocational training, it is obvious that the emphasis is on teaching students transferable skills.

Last week, I met a 17-year-old boy who was excited about his new course at the Institute of Technical Education (ITE).

The boy passed his N levels, but it was not good enough for him to move on to O levels.

So he enrolled in a two-year ITE course on laser and tooling technology which, I learnt from ITE's website, will teach him how to "perform laser cutting to produce precision parts for aircraft, automotive and medical devices".

He will have a bright future if he can master the skills to find a niche job in precision manufacturing.

He might even have a better chance of surviving the onslaught of robots in the job market than those with master's degrees in business administration.

The Government has not neglected working adults. The continuing education and training model is being overhauled.

Over the next few years, the Singapore Workforce Development Agency is expected to roll out major skills upgrading programmes, including a one-stop job and training portal to help working adults choose training courses.

We cannot look to the Government to solve all our problems.

But when it comes to job creation, education, creating training opportunities and avoiding the crippling effects when jobs vanish, the Government must take the lead, which it has.

For it is not just jobs and livelihoods, but also the future of generations of Singaporeans that is at stake.

This article was published on April 5 in The Straits Times.

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