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17 September 2019

The automation threat

The former secretary of state for work and pensions discusses how the manufacturing industry can meet the challenges attached to technological change.

By Yvette Cooper

From aerospace to medicines, electric cars to Burberry macs, British manufacturing isn’t just a proud part of our economic history; it’s a crucial aspect of our modern economy. The 2.5 million jobs in the sector include some of the most highly skilled science, design and tech positions in the world. But to stay cutting-edge and to get stronger in future, British manufacturing needs to keep pace with new technological trends such as automation and AI. That means committing to investment, adaptation, and, crucially, making sure the manufacturing workforce is able to make a positive contribution to that process.

Against the backdrop of Brexit uncertainty, too little attention is being given to huge industrial shifts taking place in Britain and across the world that could have potentially profound consequences for the workplace. The so-called fourth industrial revolution is already transforming work and people’s lives, and new technology could bring amazing benefits – creating better-quality jobs, improving our environment and generating cures for terrible diseases. But innovation can also lead to disruption, create winners and losers, concentrate power and lead to exploitation.

Past waves of industrial revolution often involved new inequalities, injustices and exploitation alongside new wealth and new opportunities. That’s why we need to actively shape the way technology is used so that it narrows rather than widens inequalities. It took decades for new legislation, the growth of trade unions and the emergence of the welfare state to tackle some of the injustices of the first industrial revolution. We can’t afford to wait that long this time round. That’s why, a year ago, I agreed to chair the Commission on Workers and Technology, a joint research initiative of the Fabian Society and the Community trade union which has been looking at the impact of new technology from the point of view of the workforce, sector by sector. We’ve spent the last year visiting companies and taking evidence from workers and experts in a range of sectors, including manufacturing. We’ve listened to the hopes and concerns of employees in vulnerable sectors and discussed the practical steps that can be taken to enable their participation in a modern, machine-led economy.

The commission is not due to report for another year, but already some things have become clear. For example, we are finding that although there is huge potential for technology to improve jobs and lots of workers are positive about change, too often when new technology is deployed, it undermines the quality of jobs and day-to-day experiences in the workplace.

We’ve visited plants that were at risk of closing down before new technology was adopted that helped them become more competitive. And we’ve seen remarkable virtual reality simulations improve product design and also allow workers to redesign their own processes and workspaces. And we’ve seen examples of technology used to improve the quality and skill of jobs by removing repetitive, routine tasks. The commission visited a manufacturing plant in June where members of staff play a crucial role in determining how robots are integrated into production processes.

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But we’ve also heard evidence of new technologies in other sectors removing the most enjoyable elements from jobs – such as retail and hospitality workers who say that self-service machines are taking away the human interaction and customer relationships that they enjoy at work. We’ve seen examples of technology introduced to replace jobs and cut staff, or technology used to monitor staff and make jobs less rewarding.

We’ve heard concerning evidence about employers such as Amazon using technology for workplace surveillance and monitoring. Far from relieving workers of menial tasks, new technology can be used to force humans to work as if they were machines. Harnessing technological change for the good requires vigilance and action to prevent new technology being used to control rather than emancipate the workforce.

The commission also found that many workers feel powerless when it comes to technological change. Even though 80 per cent of workers who responded to our recent survey said technology had affected their jobs, six in ten don’t feel as if they don’t get any say in how that happens. Workers need to be involved and consulted about technological change at work; they should be in the driving seat, not an afterthought. Workers need the chance to shape technological developments, increasing the chance that they will be effective.

Most worryingly, the commission found that the benefits that do come with new technology are not being evenly distributed across the country. A report from the Office for National Statistics, which looked at data from 2011-2017, found that certain groups of people are at a disproportionately high risk. People with no degree currently do almost all of the jobs at risk of automation; women’s jobs make up 70 per cent of those at high risk; and workers aged between 55-65 are more than twice as likely to be in high-risk jobs than workers in their 30s. The ONS found that if you’re a worker in Boston in Lincolnshire, then there is a 57 per cent chance that your job will be automated. If you’re a worker in the London borough of Wandsworth, however, there’s only a 33 per cent chance. And of the 26 local authority areas in England where a worker is more likely than not to see their job automated, only one of these areas is within a city – all the others are made up of towns or villages, with none in London or the South East.

Our manufacturing towns have already seen the impact of previous waves of technological change. Manufacturing jobs were lost in the towns or replaced with lower-skilled warehouse or distribution jobs, while new skilled or service jobs were created in the cities. If we’re committed to embedding fairness in our economy, the government must ensure that new opportunities from technology are spread evenly and the jobs of the future aren’t just sucked into cities at the same time as jobs in our industrial and manufacturing towns are at disproportionate risk of automation. Towns in the North – the backbone of our traditional manufacturing industries – need a good deal, and they need their fair share of investment. Technology should be used to help close the gaps between men and women, young and old, North and South. It shouldn’t be making them worse.