High Skilled Migration and Automation Uncertainty

Published 7 December 2018 / By Nilanjan Raghunath

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In this blog I examine why the susceptibility of jobs to automation within the technology industry should be an important concern for crafting and updating skilled migration policy.

Economists Carl Frey and Michael Osborne argue that jobs with repetitive tasks will eventually be replaced by Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning or Smart Algorithms. As human cognition, software and machines become more integrated, the complex tasks required of a computer programmer or a legal assistant, for example, could both be potentially automated as a cost cutting exercise or to simply fill functional roles that don’t have enough labour supply. Is automation then an answer to fill jobs where there just aren’t enough people to fill them or should we automate only those jobs deemed less desirable?

While automation might seem to be a solution for filling labour shortages and skills gaps, we cannot ignore the inexorable link between automation and the role of skilled migrants in boosting innovation for economic growth, as recently highlighted in this CITI report by Professor Ian Goldin. The relationship of automation and migration offers countries a competitive advantage to mitigate the effects of outside technological disruption, and develop more endogenous resources for innovation and economic security. So, should automation and migration experts be sharing ideas with each other? I argue that experts in both fields need to collaborate to find continuous answers that hedge against ‘automation uncertainty’ in the fourth industrial revolution.

The importance of linking automation with skills migration stems from the need to prepare individuals, communities and nations on the ‘digitization’ or ‘computerization’ of work. Within this space, the technological industry emerges as a sector which creates automation and is also affected by the same. As such, it comes from the idea that automation is driven by permeation of software into industries that desire innovation. In the context of a wider socio-political landscape, a more nuanced deliberation of the future of work reiterates a link between the growing attention on automation and the skills gap debates.

Frey and Osborne’s research presents industry-specific findings and perceptions on the degree of change that various socioeconomic factors will bring to jobs. With reference to job skills, their research focuses on the drivers of change and skills stability for jobs to illustrate the relative and projected impact of dominant factors contributing to the shifts in industries and the nature of work. While the current research presents a comprehensive breakdown of the factors of urgency to industries and job skills, it does not attempt to explain or hypothesize the findings to provide a meaningful interpretation about the future of work.

I believe that the changing model of global outsourcing, the problem of skills mismatch, and stakeholder responsibility for job displacements is tremendously important in fostering innovation, as highlighted in this recent WEF report. The global flow of skilled migrants helps to connect innovation with new functional roles and jobs, especially when there isn’t enough of the right talent in the home country.

There is growing concern from firms that the skills gap might not be met for example in fast growing areas such as computer science and medical related industries. To benefit from automation, opening doors to skilled migrants may be necessary to boost innovation and entrepreneurship, which in the long run creates more jobs; this in turn may reduce pressures for organizations to take their investments elsewhere because they feel a ‘talent crunch’.

By studying the interaction between automation and skills migration, the potential outcomes on the future of jobs could be as follows: Firstly, the global outsourcing model is experiencing a shift in weight from low-skilled labour to high-skilled labour with the displacement of low-skilled jobs by automation and policies aimed at evening out economic competitive advantage; Secondly, the simultaneous occurrence of increasing automation serves to aggravate the problem of skills mismatch in technology industries. Although the pace and scale of automation requires the flexible movement of qualified foreign labour to temporarily fill vacancies, this has not been possible given the barriers to migration, which may suggest a greater time lag for skills to catch up with technological progress; Lastly, it appears that the accountability for the future of work is shared between professionals and policymakers. While this blog draws on those industries that are more likely to gravitate towards technological disruption, the outcomes suggest wider implications that span across industries and national boundaries.

About the author: Nilanjan Raghunath is a visiting academic at COMPAS. She has a forthcoming book on automation and proactive governance. She also has a forthcoming book chapter on automation on nationalism.