Sydney jobs to boom in healthcare, social assistance as population surpasses 5.8m
Almost half a million people will work in the healthcare and social assistance industry in Greater Sydney by 2030, when the city’s population is expected to pass 5.8 million.
Across our suburbs, it will be the second largest industry, pipped only by professional, scientific and technical services. Retail will be the third-largest employer, according to detailed job forecasts published by Transport for NSW.
Unlike professional services, which are concentrated in the CBD, healthcare jobs will be distributed across the metropolitan area. The health industry benefits from Sydney’s ageing population and contains many jobs that are difficult to automate.
While experts are divided on the pace of change, automation is widely seen as the biggest challenge facing the state’s job market in the next decade.
In 2015, the Committee for Economic Development of Australia predicted in a report that almost 40 per cent of jobs then in existence were likely to have disappeared by 2030 due to automation, with a similar number of jobs created in different industries.
“The big worry though … is that there will be an increasing polarisation in the job market,” one of the report’s authors, University of Sydney Professor Hugh Durrant-Whyte, says.
There will be beneficiaries. Dr Harry Klimis is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney, where a team he is part of won a $1 million prize from Google to develop their plans to prevent heart attacks with AI.
“Essentially my PhD focus is on optimising text message-based prevention for cardiovascular disease,” Klimis says. He envisions a program in which people can sign up and receive text messages based on data from their smartphone or smartwatch such as location and physical activity to nudge them to make healthier choices.
“I’m interested in the way machine learning can help with that,” Klimis says. He believes algorithms can help determine which messages sent at what times are most effective. Creative, highly skilled jobs like Klimis’ that combine working with both people and machines are safe.
And many low-level jobs that require dealing with unpredictable situations and performing fine manual tasks, like security guards and cleaners, will also remain. It is hard to equip a robot to clean behind a toilet, for example.
The big worry is that there will be an increasing polarisation in the job market.
Professor Hugh Durrant-Whyte, University of Sydney
But Durrant-Whyte says aspects of mid-level white collar jobs that involve repeating the same tasks, doing data analysis and rote-learning information are vulnerable to automation.
Where paralegals used to have to search through troves of litigation documents by hand, machine-reading means they can be searched on a computer. As AI advances, software will also be able to highlight the most relevant passages.
In the same way, warehouse workers are increasingly directed to the location of the next item they need to collect from the shelf and given an allotted time to do so by wrist-mounted PDAs.
In each case, more of the work is performed by a machine, meaning more efficiency and fewer jobs. Those who are laid off do not necessarily have the skills to occupy the high-level jobs that will remain.
“Now what do you do with people like that? That’s the big question, because it really is driving inequality,” Durrant-Whyte says.
Research by global consultancy McKinsey & Company released earlier this year estimated that “without retraining for vulnerable workers, especially administrative and manual workers and those in vulnerable regions, income inequality could widen by up to 30 per cent” as a result of automation.
That poses a challenge for educational institutions, employers, and the government. If it is not met, it could exacerbate the already unequal distribution of jobs and income in Sydney.
The corridor driving growth
Modelling by SGS Economics and Planning, one of Australia’s most respected regional economics firms, shows a narrow strip of land running from the airport through the CBD and North Sydney to Macquarie Park is dominating the city’s growth.
“Of all of Sydney’s economic growth, 40 per cent of that was coming from the part going from Macquarie Park to the airport,” Terry Rawnsley, an SGS principal, says. “That strip of land was 40 per cent of Sydney’s economic growth. That’s still the driver.”
The CBD, which already contains about 600,000 workers, is predicted to be home to almost 730,000 employees in 2031 — the highest raw job growth of any region in Sydney.
If mid-level jobs in other areas are automated, the city could increase its already outsized economic importance.
One solution, telecommuting, has not had the impact once predicted.
In 2000, the Olympic Roads and Transport Authority urged Sydney businesses to let their employees work from home to ease demands on public transport, but research later found only about 3 per cent of workers did.
“We’ve had 25 years of increases in information technology that would let you work from anywhere but over that same 25 years, not just in Australia but globally, more and more jobs have concentrated in the CBD,” Rawnsley says.
Jobs have come to the inner city because companies want to be near those with which they compete and collaborate to share knowledge and people want to work in areas that have good places to eat and socialise after the workday.
But there are signs, Rawnsley says, that some workers are choosing to vary their work routines. Working from home two days a week and spending the rest in a city office is becoming more common, but that has little impact on the distribution of jobs.
It is in part for that reason that healthcare and retail are such major employers in so many areas of Sydney. Unlike finance or professional services jobs, people like to live and shop in their own communities, including in their old age.
The hope for jobs in three cities
The Greater Sydney Commission has warned that if Sydney continues to have only one primary CBD, it will face significant costs, including more expensive living and housing, social segregation, congestion, air quality problems and heat island effects.
Instead, the commission hopes for three Sydney “cities”: one centred on the harbour, one on Parramatta and one further west. If the plan works, clusters of high-paying, highly skilled jobs will be spread out across the city.
But making Parramatta a city centre in its own right is not a new idea.
The Cumberland Free Press reported in 1897 that there was widespread agreement Parramatta “is unnaturally slow to take up the position which it ought to assume among the leading cities and centres of the colony”.
Durrant-Whyte says the plan to enliven western Sydney is more likely to succeed now because two jobs hubs are planned for the region, both with a big employers and educational institutions.
Badgerys Creek airport, which is under construction, will be supported by an “aerotropolis” in which the University of NSW, Western Sydney University and the universities of Newcastle and Wollongong will participate.
Similarly, UNSW, the University of Sydney and WSU all have a presence at Westmead Hospital.
Of all of Sydney’s economic growth, 40 per cent of that was coming from the part going from Macquarie Park to the airport.
Terry Rawnsley, SGS Economics
“More people need more health services and more health services have allied health, the chiropractors, radiologists, cardiologists, and they all need coffee and lunches and their taxes done,” Rawnsley says. “That provides a real anchor for other jobs to grow around it.”
University of Sydney vice-chancellor Michael Spence is bullish on the region. He says the new campus will address problems created by automation, with academics working in fields like radical inequality and the social sciences of AI.
“The idea is that this should not be in any sense be University of Sydney-lite,” Spence says. “This should be a distinctive and innovative offering.”
And he is insistent that whatever place the west might occupy in the imaginations of those from the inner city, it is a future employment heart of Sydney.
“It’s the centre of the city. There’s a half of Sydney that lives west of Parramatta. It’s not ‘out there’,” Spence says.
The Sydney Morning Herald is hosting a population summit on September 23. For more details and to view the list of speakers click here.
Nick is a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald.