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Don’t believe all the scare stories about the future of work, with new tech comes new opportunities. But will your employees be equipped?

In school in the 1970s, they told us that, thanks to technology, by the end of the century we’d have two-day working weeks and more leisure time than we’d know what to do with. But the pathways of change take unexpected turns…

Over the last six months, the news has been dominated by stories about the threat to jobs posed by automation and robotics. Report after report has highlighted not just the number of jobs to be replaced by automation but the likelihood of whole professions disappearing. Institutions like McKinsey Global Institute and Oxford University have suggested great swathes of the economy will become automated. But it’s the pace of change that’s said to pose the greatest threat. The speed of technological advances in automation and robotics poses the question, can new jobs be created quickly enough to replace the numbers lost?

The predicted fallout of jobs is massive. A World Bank report says that approximately two-thirds of all jobs in developing nations are susceptible to replacement by automation.  Meanwhile, futurologist Thomas Frey suggests two billion jobs that exist now will be gone by 2030. China, at the forefront of automation, seems to bear this out. Chinese companies will be introducing 160,000 robots this year. Foxconn, the biggest technology company in the world with one million employees, has set a benchmark of 30% automation at its Chinese factories by 2020.

The anxieties of our age

Scary stuff. But is there a risk that our anxieties may be getting out of control? Among experts, opinion is divided as to the scale of the threat to jobs. And the split is much closer than you’d think, given the hysterical tone of media coverage. In an echo of Brexit, techno-optimists outnumber techno-pessimists 52% to 48%.

The majority view is that artificial intelligence will open up new professions and create jobs, even allowing for the breakneck pace of technological change. It’s been estimated that 65% of children entering school today will have careers that haven’t even been invented yet. If we cast our minds back 10 years ago, when the impact of the internet was significantly less than it is now, no-one anticipated jobs in social media and app development. And that’s the point. The situation is worrying if we view the number of jobs as finite, but less so if we acknowledge that new technologies also bring new areas of career opportunities.

If we look at the threat to professions, again the story may be misleading. Large numbers of jobs will be affected by automation, that’s certain. For example, it’s suggested that doctors’ jobs will be safe but that lawyers will be at risk. But we’re more likely to see job content change rather than jobs disappear completely. The introduction of ATMs into high street banks was widely predicted to herald a haemorrhaging of bank jobs. In fact, employees were retained but were shifted towards more people-centric roles, focusing on higher-quality customer interactions. What we’re likely to see, certainly in the short term, is a workplace in which human skills are augmented by automation and artificial intelligence. So doctors and nurses will operate in a more technologically developed environment where machines undertake more routine tasks leaving more time for inter-personal care.

We also need to be cautious about our predictions for the future given our rather patchy history of looking ahead. Here I am, nearly 20 years after that prediction of a two-day working week was due to materialise, living in the country with the longest working hours in Europe. The pathways of change can be erratic, so future projections around technological developments are notoriously hard to get right. Who’d have thought that the mobile phone – seen as a fad when it was first introduced – would become the indispensable tool it is today?

Taking steps to future proof

So, we need to be cautious about some of our predictions about the future of work. But at the same time, we need to take steps to address the more certain implications.

Responsible governments and organisations should be equipping themselves for the future. In industries like retail, automation has been proceeding swiftly for some time, and the nature of work is changing fast. Already, 100,000 employees in the retail sector are doing jobs that didn’t exist five years ago, and most of these require technical skills. Of retail jobs that currently exist, 60% are believed to be at risk. The industry is struggling to address the skills and retraining needs of a workforce that’s ill-equipped for the future.

In many ways, what’s happening in the retail sector foreshadows what lies ahead for many other industries. Businesses need to be preparing themselves for this and plotting out the implications and how they’re going to address them. Automation is changing the skills requirement of the UK economy and the gap this is creating will place an unprecedented strain on our capacity to re-educate and train people.

In order to thrive in the future, employees will need to constantly upskill. If our economy is going to grow in the years ahead, our technical skills deficit needs bridging. With budgets for education looking tighter than ever, where is the funding coming from to address the required skills transformation?

This is where we ought to be focusing our energy: governments and industry need to be sitting down to tackle this skills shortage strategically. Or there’s a real risk the UK will lose its competitive edge. What happened in retail represents the not-too-distant future for a lot of other industries, businesses need to be thinking about this now.


Is your organisation looking towards the future of work? Join us at Work 2.0 on 25 and 26 May at the Business Design Centre, London.