Assessing automation’s impact

A design for autonomous vessel Yara Birkeland Credit: Kongsberg

Transportation is the backbone of our globalised economy and it has been undergoing significant transformation because of the 4th Industrial Revolution – a period characterised by the integration of artificial intelligence and higher degrees of automation and autonomy.

Recently, the World Maritime University (WMU) launched a first-ever, independent and comprehensive assessment of how automation and technology will affect the future of transport workers by 2040. This study, titled Transport 2040: Automation, Technology, Employment – The Future of Work, summarises almost two years of intensive research, funded by the International Transport Workers’ Federation, and depicts the most important global transport sector trends in automation and technology and its implications for jobs and employment.

The research undertaken indicates that technological advances in transport are inevitable, but the pace will be gradual and vary by region and modes of transport. The timelines for the introduction of further levels of automation and technology in transport are longer than often portrayed by some stakeholders in transport. Workers will be affected in different ways based on a complex set of factors, including skill levels and the national and local contexts. On the macro-level, we can expect an evolution rather than a revolution with respect to the pace of automation.

Despite the challenges created in parts of the transport chain, there will be new employment opportunities. While the continuous growth of global trade may help to ease the burden created by the further introduction of automation and technology, a difficult transition may be ahead for many employed in the transportation sector today, depending on the mode of transport.

In shipping, highly automated ships could result in the elimination of certain jobs on board. At the same time, new jobs with different skills will be created ashore in monitoring or remotely controlling ships from shore-based operational centres. Transport workers need to be prepared for the transition by adapting their skills to the emerging technological paradigms. Looking ahead, the study reveals that most countries analysed have not elaborated long-term plans for automation and technology.

The importance of requalification and retraining of workers, including new skill sets, will be the key for the successful transition of workers to the new jobs that will be created. The Future of Work calls for governments’, employers’, and workers’ organisations to work together to ensure that training, re-training, and education schemes, including vocational and higher education programmes, are in place; that workers acquire the necessary skills and competencies; are suitably qualified for the new jobs to be created to effectively master the new technologies and higher levels of automation; and that adequate resources and policies are in place to facilitate the transition.

The message from the WMU report is clear: despite growing levels of automation and technology, workers will continue to be the backbone of transport. However, education, capacity-building and re-training will be essential to prepare workers for the upcoming changes to the Future of Work.