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If you're reading this on a smartphone, you might think the device was made by an army of robots and low-skilled workers. Think again.

Mike McNamara, whose company Flex makes many of the world’s phones, can’t find or train enough skilled workers to keep pace with advances in digital technology and electronics.

A few years ago, the typical smartphone consisted of 800 parts. Today, that number is 3,000 — and the human skills needed to put it all together are growing exponentially.

“We’ve been talking about automation taking away everyone’s job for years, and yet I see the unemployment rate going down,” McNamara told the Milken Institute’s MI Global conference in Los Angeles.

As one of the world’s largest contract manufacturers, Flex needs to automate as the demands on manufacturing grow — and it needs to add more people to make the automation work.

“You can’t get there without automation,” McNamara said. “It’s almost necessary for the work to be done.”

Change is not a threat when you feel in control. That’s why we’re seeing the rise of populism, because people don’t feel they have control.

Royal Bank of Canada CEO Dave McKay

The skills revolution was centre stage at Milken, as investors, executives and government leaders tried to come to grips with the whiplash of technology and labour force disruption.

Is it transition or transformation?

Royal Bank of Canada CEO Dave McKay told the audience that 50 years after the advent of ATMs, banks are employing more people than ever. For vastly different needs.

“There’s not a lot of artificial intelligence,” he said. “There’s human intelligence. We’re teaching machines.”

Trouble is, much of the workforce is not ready to work with advanced machines.

In the U.S., only 35% of adults under the age of 35 have a college degree. Chuck Schumer, the Democrat’s minority leader in the Senate, pointed to upstate New York where there’s a “desperate shortage” of blue collar workers like welders.

Among the challenges: welders increasingly need algebra to work with new technology.

The skills mismatch is one reason there are 6.5 million unfilled jobs in the U.S., and many are skeptical about the ability of traditional schools to lead the transition.

McNamara said Flex, which employs 200,000 people globally, can’t find enough workers in many countries. And the younger employees it recruits want to work with advanced machines, but need training as soon as they join the company.

McKay told the Milken crowd about Canada’s approach to work-integrated learning through apprenticeships, co-ops and internships, and a commitment by the country’s leading employers and post-secondary schools to create such opportunities for every undergraduate student. He called the approach “the great democratizer,” giving students a direct path into the workplace regardless of background.

Canada is also exploring more ambitious approaches to life-long learning, to help mid-career workers develop new skills.

“There’s anxiety. The journey will be difficult,” McKay said.

He warned business and government to expect more populist movements if they fail to create clearer pathways for employees facing disruption. And he urged employers to be honest about the challenges.

“Change is not a threat when you feel in control,” he said. “That’s why we’re seeing the rise of populism, because people don’t feel they have control.”

For more insights from this #MIGlobal panel, watch it here in its entirety.