The co-founder of one of Australia’s largest and most influential tech companies has fronted a Senate inquiry into the future of work, urging the government to take proactive steps to prepare for automation’s “massive job disruption”.
Mike Cannon-Brookes, co-founder of software company Atlassian, told a number of Senators at a hearing for the Select Committee on the Future of Work and Workers in Melbourne this morning there are many industries that automation will disrupt in the future but he picked out the rapidly emerging self-driving car sector as an example.
“There’s no doubt this technology will revolutionise the economy and many many people will lose their jobs. Approximately 30% of Australian jobs involve driving, and by 2030 an estimated 800 million jobs lost worldwide due to automation,” Cannon-Brookes told the Committee.
“A study from 2016 put it at 40% of all Australian jobs by 2025.”
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Cannon-Brookes believes drivers of today, such as Uber drivers or long-distance truck drivers, will be the “blacksmiths of the 20th century”, their jobs made largely irrelevant by new developments in technology. Despite reluctance to scare people and be “Chicken Little”, Cannon-Brookes was resolute that “there will be massive job disruption”.
“Look at any big technological change, like the steam engine. That came with massive job loss and massive job gain,” he said.
“But the jobs gained were not filled with those who lost the jobs. It’s a very hard part of how technology works.”
Despite the entrepreneur’s alarm-sounding, he underpinned his warning with the message that technology is not a destructive force, and with many new jobs created as old ones are lost, workers would have the opportunity to switch careers given enough warning and support by government.
He told the committee the future was here and disruption is “not science fiction”. The government to act soon rather than fighting or ignoring the impending changes, he said.
Cannon-Brookes also specified that self-driving cars are far from the only area where this disruption could occur, but mentioned his four young children and predicted, “I don’t believe any of them will every learn to drive a car”.
“Tech change has been a constant throughout civilisation, and hindsight is a beautiful thing,” he said.
“I implore you to use it in our favour.”
Amazon will tear apart Aussie retail
Cannon-Brookes also briefly touched on the incoming disruption from retail giant Amazon, which is now more valuable than all bricks-and-mortar retailers in the United States.
The impact of Amazon will soon be felt in “our own backyard”, warned the Atlassian co-founder, and while the disruption will be a boon for consumers, he said the effect on Australian businesses “scares me a lot”.
“If I’m being honest, Amazon is going to tear apart Australian retail as it did in the US. That’s not an uncertain future, it’s an already written past,” Cannon-Brookes said.
Upskilling and supporting local workers essential for Australian economy
During the hour-long discussion, Cannon-Brookes spoke on issues of skilled migration and the problems with Australia’s 457 visa system, grievances he and the wider tech sector have regularly raised in recent years.
An oft-heard line was repeated: “The lack of access to talent is the single biggest factor draining the growth of the tech industry in Australia”.
He mentioned the government’s 457 visa changes had “directly” hurt Atlassian as a company, and are suffocating Australia’s ability to grow as an innovation nation. With this in mind, he proposed three major challenges for the economy to overcome, while addressing the future of work and the growth of the tech sector.
“The first part is upskilling and retraining workers. We need to shift the opinion on education from something we do when we’re young to something we do for our entire life,” he said.
“It’s about how we enable lifelong learning so people can continue to learn new skills and embrace new learning opportunities.”
Cannon-Brookes also implored the government to provide income support for displaced workers other than through “traditional systems”, along with ensuring there was enough post-disruption job creation.
“It’s time to start planning how to overcome the negative impacts of technology disruption. Embracing change is hard and scary, you have to learn from the past and move forward without any fear or rhetoric around robots taking our jobs,” he said.