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10 July 2017updated 04 Aug 2021 9:46pm

Can skills survive the robot revolution?

Clare McNeil, associate director for work and families at IPPR, and Rod Dowler, chairman of the Industry Forum, debate the threat that robots pose to employees, and whether skills can save them.

By Clare McNeil

The world of work is changing: technological advancement is rapid, with automation making skills redundant and transforming employment. Some of this is exaggerated; currently the data can only tell us which jobs have the “potential” to be automated and the technological feasibility, as opposed to the likelihood.

While caution is needed, so is serious planning. Our analysis at IPPR shows in information and communications less than one in four jobs have a high potential of being automated. In manufacturing, however, 49 per cent have a high potential for automation and two-thirds of jobs in wholesale and retail.

Most concerning are industries with a high proportion of automation-friendly jobs, and a high proportion of workers who would struggle with redundancy. The wholesale and retail sector employs three in four workers without a degree-level qualification, and evidence suggests these workers are most vulnerable. Adults without GCSE-level qualifications are more likely to be out of work a year after being made redundant.

The Conservative and Labour manifestos included broad pledges to introduce national re-training programmes, recognising if we are not to consign lower skilled workers to long-term unemployment, intervention is needed. But there was little detail on what or how from either.

Meanwhile, Germany is introducing plans to guarantee workers a right to lifelong learning and introduce personal work accounts allowing people to invest in skills enhancements. The “compte personnel de formation” (CPF) provides French workers with an entitlement of 150 hours of free tuition with paid leave.

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The government should have three priorities: boosting investment in skills and their use, increasing the provision of high-quality vocational training, and supporting workers in industries where skills needs are changing.

The government could introduce a skills levy to generate £5bn extra investment. We recently showed UK employers invest an average of £6bn per year less than their European competitors in employee training, and investment has fallen by £5.1bn since 2010. Greater co-investment from individuals with match funding from the state will also be needed, with a UK equivalent of the French and German lifelong learning accounts.

To increase high-quality vocational education, new sectorial institutions should be created and for industries with changing skills needs, a national retraining programme should include support for those made redundant, and those with low skill levels.

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Two-thirds of the workforce of 2030 have left full-time education, so as Britain forges its new role in the world, the focus must be on the working age population as well as ensuring young people have the skills to thrive.

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If you don’t have a job, if your job is insecure or poorly paid, or if you spot trends that may eliminate your job, it is reasonable to be worried. The two most commonly identified threats to jobs are immigration and technology. There is a weary consensus the Brexit vote will address the immigration issue so technology, particularly in the form of robots, is now receiving intense media, political scrutiny, and fear-mongering.

Computers are not new, taking an increasingly active role in our lives for some 50 years. It is no longer an act of faith to think technology can be transformational; look at the amazingly fast adoption of smart phones and use of very complex technologies to communicate, navigate and access retail services. The potential of technology is real and may offer the best way to sustain the UK economy.

Many people continue to be suspicious of technology-driven change, and successive UK governments have struggled with major technological projects. The situation is similar in the United States, but one difference is the government invests massively in military and security projects which benefits the US tech sector. This hasn’t, however, solved problems such as static real wages for many workers, and poor infrastructure.

It is understandable people who fear being made poorer by technology changes are likely to oppose them. There is, therefore, an opportunity for a UK government with a confident attitude towards technology to achieve a lot. This would depend on changing the Treasury’s short-term investment thinking, and developing the civil service’s ability to deliver major cross-department technology projects.

Examples of productive actions would be accelerating 5G mobile communications, installing electric vehicle charging points, introducing a smart grid, increasing technology support for care workers, and reskilling workers. It would need to be done on a scale sufficient to be effective. Hard-headed economists and accountants would question the cost. The alternative has not worked, so it is time to adopt an ambitious approach to technology.

A model for a tech-supported workplace of the future might be a mixed community of people and robots, with a division of labour. Humans could perform the tasks involving empathy and judgement, and robots tasks involving mechanical strength, high-speed calculations and more. For example, people currently stacking shelves in retail stores might be re-employed in the care services. It would require suitable laws, regulations, and taxation, and cooperation between government, companies, and human workers.

In a post-Brexit world, the UK must make the leap to a leader in developing and using technology successfully to benefit the economy and society as a whole. This would involve wrenching adjustments for politicians, a wake-up call to think tanks and universities, and a profound challenge for the civil service. In the process we could all come to fear robots less and love them a little more.