Quarter of Brits worried about losing jobs to automation

Don't oppose automating jobs – just do it well, says union leader

A quarter of Brits are worried about robots taking their jobs  and no wonder, given the constant predictions that automation will leave us without work.

The most recent figure comes via the Commission on Workers and Technology (CWT), backed by trade union Community and the Fabian Society, and headed up by MP Yvette Cooper. To mark the group's founding, the commission released its survey of 1,000 British workers, pointing to some positive findings: 73% are "confident they will be able to change and update their skills if new technology affects their job", while half are "optimistic" about their future job prospects.

However, the remaining 23% are worried that their job role may disappear entirely in the automation revolution, citing a lack in belief that the government, companies and trade unions are doing enough to help. Fewer than one in ten believe the government is helping the workforce adapt to such new technologies, versus 16% for trade unions and 27% for corporates.

That "failure of leadership" to help prepare at-risk workers is why the commission was set up, the new organisation said in a statement. "It is vital that action is taken now to ensure changing technology doesn't widen inequality and to make sure all workers feel the benefits," added Cooper.

"Technology can have great benefits as well as create new challenges," she added. "It's vital that action is taken now to make sure technology creates new better jobs and that all workers benefit from new technology. We have to make sure that automation and the digital revolution don't widen inequality and that everyone gets the help and support they need to get on."

Job concerns

It's no surprise at least some Brits are worried about being left behind as more automation steps into the workplace, as the past few years have seen a string of reports predicting robots stealing jobs, sparking ominous headlines.

In 2014, the University of Oxford revealed researching that suggested a third of UK jobs could be replaced by technology such as automation and robotics in the next two decades. A year later, the Bank of England warned that 15 million British jobs were at risk from automation, notably administrative and clerical tasks.

This year, the Centre for Cities thinktank said a fifth of British jobs were on the line, with workers in manufacturing and retail in Mansfield, Wakefield and Sunderland most at risk, while PWC said a third of jobs could be lost globally by 2030, particularly impacting young people

Alibaba CEO Jack Ma said earlier this year that AI and robots will "kill many jobs", while Deutsche Bank's CEO John Cryan has said a "big number" of his own staff would lose work because of automation. 

Others disagree, with Gartner predicting that by 2020, artificial intelligence will create more jobs than it destroys. Capita also predicted that automation will create more jobs than will be lost but followed that up by slashing jobs to use a "robotic solution" in their place

If the doomsayers prove correct, there are some upsides for those left with jobs, at least. PWC says GPD will climb. And at least most of us are happy taking orders from a boss robot, an Oracle survey found, and working alongside AI may make us better at our jobs, says Kemp Little. Indeed, an HPE exec said it's "fanciful" that robots will take our jobs; instead, automation will augment employees to improve their work and make those jobs easier. 

What to do?

For its part, Community and Fabian's new commission aims to "identify the immediate actions" that government, trade unions and employers need to take over the next decade to protect workers when automation arrives. 

The CWT hopes to help develop policy on what interventions are needed to create high-quality jobs for humans, how to support workers facing changing job roles and help them move to new work, and look at how unions can support innovation while ensuring "that no one is left behind".

What might that look like? Bill Gates has suggested robot workers should pay taxes, to slow takeup of their use by companies and to pay the costs of shifting to new forms of employment for humans perhaps to fund a universal basic income or simply more education for impacted workers. 

"Automation cannot simply be opposed, rather it should be made to work in the interests of working people," said Roy Rickhuss, General Secretary of Community. "Our members are already dealing with the consequences of automation being managed badly."

Image: Shutterstock

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