Technology is not a magic bullet

27 Apr 2018

Robot human hands appleNew Zealand unemployment is currently at its lowest level since 2008. In some areas of the country there are very few people available for work, down to double digits, and this looks like it will continue for some time. This sounds good, but it’s a two-edged sword, as many New Zealand industries are facing acute shortages; it’s not just one industry struggling to find workers.

Simply put, there aren’t enough bodies on the ground.

The lack of skilled and reliable workers will hold back New Zealand’s growth, and put the economy into decline. It is vital that both industry and Government act now, not only to develop new programmes to get the remaining unemployed New Zealanders into work, but to also access workers from overseas and shore up the workforce.

Robotics and artificial intelligence are often touted as the solution to labour shortages. But they aren’t; at least, not on their own. Firstly, robots will need their own suite of technicians to build and maintain them; this is true for any technology. Secondly, there will always, at least in my life time, be the need for workers; neither robotics nor artificial intelligence will solve the shortage we face today. We will be waiting at least five more years before technology is prevalent enough that there will be any noticeable impact on the number of workers required.

A good example is apple picking, where there is a significant need for more seasonal workers at harvest time. For there to be automated apple picking, apple trees will need to be grown on different structures. Converting to those structures will take years, so this is definitely not something that will happen overnight.

The most tangible benefit we will see from robotics and artificial intelligence will be the ability to redeploy workers from automated tasks to non-automated tasks. Technology that replaces mundane, repetitive tasks will be well received by employers and workers alike, as these are the lowest paying tasks and the ones that are hardest to find workers for. I think the real advantages we will see in the next few years will be a change in the types of jobs that humans do, rather than needing fewer humans in the workforce. 

Technology will help keep our industries growing, but it will not supply all the workers we need. We need to get the remaining unemployed into work, and supplement our permanent workforce through targeted immigration, while championing growth and innovation. Technology can be wonderful, and it is here to stay, but right now we need worker bees more than we need drones.

- Mike Chapman, CEO