Handling transport work disruption needs concerted approach: report

TWUSuper study calls for inclusive planning to curb destructive outcomes

Handling transport work disruption needs concerted approach: report
Jim Stanford says preparing for change is the responsibility of all industry stakeholders


Automation and the gig economy are two of the major work challenges facing a transport industry and how they are handled is crucial as the industry is poised to enter a major transition phase, a new research report finds.

The Future of Transportation Work: Technology, Work Organization, and the Quality of Jobs by Dr Jim Stanford, economist and director of The Centre for Future Work at progressive think tank the Australia Institute (AI) and AI senior economist Matt Grudnoff and written for industry superannuation fund TWUSuper, calls on the industry as a whole to focus on preparing for unsettling developments.

The researchers find that "work in this sector is poised for dramatic change in the years ahead – partly because of technology, but also because of other factors (such as rapid evolution in the organisation of work and the nature of employment relationships).

"It is the responsibility of all stakeholders in transportation to prepare for that change – to manage it, minimise its costs, and maximise its benefits."

While many aspects of the employment and worker profile of the industry are well known — the greatest average employee age of nearly 45, low level of formal training and qualification — other dynamics have had less exposure.

For instance, drivers, operators, and managers have experienced faster employment growth than the sector as a whole in recent years, while clerical and sales jobs grew relatively slowly, and technical and trades employment declined.

But barely half of transportation workers now are employed in a traditional ‘standard’ employment relationship of permanent full-time paid work, with close to one-quarter working part-time and most of them in casual, irregular positions.

While technology impacts on transport work are seen as very real, the researchers caution that doomsday scenarios of mass industry unemployment are likely overdone but acknowledge there are risks for those whose tasks require less "flexibility and judgement".

And many of these are not on the road.

"The potential for driverless technology has been much discussed in the media and policy discussions, and it is certainly true that many driver and operator functions face a high degree of automation," the economists say.

"Railroad and heavy truck drivers face the highest vulnerability in this regard, due to the enhanced controllability of the driving environment in those applications.

"Indeed, the implementation of driverless vehicles in carefully controlled public transit, industrial and trunk road settings is already occurring.

"Drivers who need to exert greater flexibility and judgment in their work (including smaller truck, delivery truck, marine and airline operators) would seem to face a less extreme, but still significant, vulnerability to automation.

"Many other support and ancillary functions are also fertile ground for the application of labour-saving and labour-replacing technologies.

"Indeed, cargo agents, clerks, and sales workers face the highest likelihood of automation of any transportation-related occupations.

"So it is important not to place undue focus on the potential for automating driving; in fact, stakeholders must be cognisant of the probability of automation across all aspects of transportation work."

Practices in the so-called ‘gig economy’, driven by "a free-wheeling, digital economy" and based on platforms within it, are seen to hark back centuries to a more precarious time, with the point of difference being IT.

Here a regulatory deficit is discerned.

Weak labour market conditions facilitate the process, too: by ratifying firms’ adoption of contingent staffing strategies, and undermining workers’ ability to demand greater stability in their employment relationships," the report states.

"Similarly, the ambivalent stance of regulators to the recognition and enforcement of minimum standards in new business models has also allowed ‘gig’ models to proliferate."

To avoid the changes being socially destructive while allowing the positive outcomes to be realised, six planning measures are suggested:

  • facilitating mobility
  • establishing benchmarks for skills and qualifications
  • facilitating decent retirement
  • negotiating technological change
  • building consensus
  • protecting standards and benefits.

 More details in a summary of the report can be found here.


You can also follow our updates by joining our LinkedIn group or liking us on Facebook