Where have all the Typists Gone? Technology and Changing Job Profiles in Sri Lanka

 

By Nisha Arunatilake and Chathurga Karunanayake

 

A few decades ago, typing and shorthand courses were popular amongst young girls aiming for low-skilled office jobs. But today, no one aspires to be a typist. With the proliferation of computers, most do their own typing. But, the demand for graphic designers and copy editors have increased, as individuals attempt to use new software to make their written work more interesting and reader-friendly.

 

Document processing is not the only field where technology has reshaped occupation profiles. Innovation and technology are transforming production in a variety of industries. The way people live, reproduce, grow food, work, and interact with each other are all changing with technological advancements. As detailed by Katz (1999), better access to cheap and fast computers was already revolutionising production processes in the last quarter of the 20th century. But, the changes that are happening at present are not limited to computerisation that makes production processes easy. Scientific breakthroughs in a broad spectrum of fields, including genetics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and 3D printing, are feeding into innovations in raw materials, new forms of energy, and fresh ways of production.

 

Implications for the Labour Market

 

These trends are shifting the nature and the organisation of the labour market in a variety of ways. First, technological change is making some jobs outdated. For instance, bank tellers are being replaced by automatic teller machines (ATMs), which are able to do most functions carried out by tellers. Second, technology is creating new jobs. Although the bank tellers are getting replaced by machines, different types of workers are needed to maintain the ATM machines and to write software for them. Third, technology is also changing the nature of jobs. For example, a couple of decades ago, a motor car mechanic was considered to be a low-skilled worker, who could learn the necessary skills on the job. But today, computers are needed to detect the defects in cars that are equipped with many electronic components. As such, unlike earlier, now vehicle mechanics need to have computer skills to fix cars.

 

According to a survey conducted for the 2017 ‘Future of Jobs in India – A 2022 Perspective’ report by Ernst and Young, the nature of jobs in India and the skills needed to do those jobs will be very different in 2022, compared to present day jobs. According to this survey, 9 per cent of the jobs in India in 2022 will be jobs that are not in existence today, 37 per cent of the jobs in 2022 will be radically changed, requiring a different set of skills, and only about 54 per cent of the jobs will remain unchanged. Such rapid changes to occupation skill profiles are making it difficult to fill vacancies.

 

Sri Lanka’s Reality

 

In 2013, Frey and Osborne, in their research on the ‘The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation?’ developed a model to assess job disruptions due to computerisation. In that, they show that, 47 percent of the jobs in the US are at risk of becoming obsolete relatively soon. They make their estimates by developing a method to assign a probability of computerisation to 702 detailed occupations in the US in 2013. By matching the detailed occupation codes in the US to those in Sri Lanka, it is possible to assign probabilities of computerisation to jobs in Sri Lanka. The authors were able to assign probabilities of computerisation to 231 occupations, resulting in 3,602,169 workers (at the 4-digit level of the International Classification of Occupations).

 

According to the authors’ estimates, of the 3,602,169 workers to whom probabilities were assigned, 70.25 per cent (or 2,530,581 workers) were doing jobs that have more than a 70 per cent chance of getting outdated – meaning those jobs are potentially getting outdated with technological development. However, the time taken to replace these jobs will depend on the speed of technological adoption by Sri Lanka. Even if the level of computerisation of jobs in Sri Lanka will not happen as fast as it is happening in the US, the above statistics give a fairly good picture of the trends in occupation skill profiles.As the study shows, on average, the job categories that are less likely to be computerised require high levels of skill, such as ‘Managers, Senior Officials, and Legislators’ and ‘Professionals’ (see figure) and the jobs that are more likely to get automated require low levels of skill. Thus, while technology races ahead, low-skilled workers, such as typists, will be more impacted and will have to face this hard fact of job transformations and job reallocations, in the coming years.

 

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If there are no jobs for typists, what should the youth seeking low-skilled office jobs train for? At the rate technology is changing job profiles, this is a hard question to answer in time to come. The traditional methods of planning, reforming education, and training in Sri Lanka will not be able keep up with changes that are taking place in the labour market. The organisation and the governance of the education system will need to be modified in the long run, so it is able to adjust to changing times. Further, given the rate at which skill demands are changing in the labour market, even children who are best prepared for the labour market will have to upgrade their skills from time to time. The education system will need to take this into account and offer opportunities for lifelong learning. Also, since rule-based tasks are being taken over by computers, the jobs that are left for humans will involve complex tasks such problem solving, critical thinking, decision making, and creativity. The education systems must be revised to harness such skills.

 

(Above Skill Levels are based on the nature of work performed in an occupation in relation to the tasks and duties defined by International Standard Classification of Occupations – ISCO 08.)

 

 

*This blog is based on a chapter written for the forthcoming ‘Sri-Lanka: State of the Economy 2019’ report on Transforming Sri Lanka’s Economic Landscape in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Authors, Nisha Arunatilake is the Director of Research and Chathurga Karunanayake is a Research Assistant at IPS. 

 


  • Navam N

    This is some very interesting research and one of the first real efforts to quantify the potential impact of automation in Sri Lanka. There are couple of issues, however, that are worth rechecking or correcting.

    First, the assertion that technology is making jobs outdated is too simplistic. The example highlighted here – about ATMs “replacing” bank tellers – is not accurate. In the US, between the 1980s and today, 400,000 ATMs were installed, but in the same time bank tellers increased from 500,000 to 600,000 (Bessen, 2016). This is because ATMs reduce the operational costs of banks and freed up tellers to focus on other bank tasks, such as personalised services. In sum, the number of tellers required to operate a branch fell but the number of branches increased. In such situations, ATMs only automated specific low value-added tasks, within the overall job.

    Second, Frey and Osborne, do not actually claim that 47% will be automated. This claim is a misunderstanding, as they write in a recent blog post, “we make no attempt to estimate how many jobs will actually be automated,” (https://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/blog/automation-and-the-future-of-work-understanding-the-numbers/). Instead, they argue that 47% of jobs are at high risk of automation (over 70% probability of automation). The misunderstanding is first repeated and then corrected in the section “Sri Lanka’s Reality”. It would be great to remove the ambiguity. It is also worth mentioning that these figures are still contested. None of them take into account the possibility of new jobs emerging in the future.

    The overall message, however, is still useful: in the short term, there could be serious disruptions for the labour market. Those disruptions can be mitigated with thoughtful and far-sighted policy reforms, especially in education and labour mobility. At-least research is safe from automation, for now :D