Robots taking our jobs is a one-sided view

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In looking back at our history and challenges the workforce faced we can find cause to be optimistic

The media is full of concern about robots ‘taking our jobs’, with exponential improvements in new technologies expected to radically transform working life in the near future. Research predicts that strides in automation, mechanisation and artificial intelligence mean that between 25% and 50% of UK jobs could be replaced by a robot or machine in the future. Some theorists go even further to explore a dystopian future where demand for jobs, and therefore wages, far outstrips the available opportunities.

But thinking like this is simply overlaying a one-sided view from the industrial revolution of the 18th century onto the fourth industrial revolution we’re seeing today.

And in looking back at our history and the challenges the workforce faced we can also find good cause to be optimistic. While many jobs will disappear and others will change, developments in technology mean that new jobs in certain areas of expertise will be created. For instance, there are predictions that more than 60% of roles Generation Z will work in do not yet exist.

A new report from BITC and Accenture Strategy has found that within 20 years 90% of all jobs will require digital skills. With uncertainty surrounding future government policy on digital skills, UK businesses need to plan and invest now to facilitate a fundamental shift in both skillsets and employment practices.

It is only by doing this that they can build their own pipeline of digital skills to help futureproof society, empower the communities they operate in and, importantly, prevent a massive skills gap that could undermine the UK’s future success in the global economy.

Siemens is already working to upskill its future workforce with 500 apprentices in training in the UK, many working on programmes designed to develop the hybrid skills needed to work in this new machine age. For instance, they get the opportunity to work with the collaborative machines Siemens uses to improve employee productivity through assisted robotics and augmented intelligence.

Our apprenticeship programmes do not just benefit Siemens, they also ensure future success for the communities who support us today. Our research has shown this is hugely important. When we asked people in the UK about their attitudes to businesses we found that 33% believe firms are not doing enough to support young people, with 35% saying investing in the UK’s future workforce is critical.

More than three-quarters (77%) ranked the provision of work placements or apprenticeships for young people in their top five most important things organisations should do to give back to society.

It’s estimated that the UK will need 1.8 million more engineers in the coming years, and so while some jobs become automated there is likely to be very high demand in growth areas. By establishing the Institute of Apprenticeships as an independent employer-led body to oversee standards in apprenticeships/vocational education, and also implementing the levy, we have for the first time in 20 years the cornerstones of a stable, demand-led system in the UK. This should (once bedded in) create a dynamic skills pipeline capable of addressing the challenges of this fourth industrial revolution.

But it is not just new skillsets that we need to develop. The changing nature of the workplace will require a shift in organisational cultures and employment law to adapt successfully. We will need to enable agile working practices while also protecting workers from unscrupulous ones.

It will require a new social contract between industry and society in which investment and access to the very best learning, skills development and technology is placed at the heart of our nation, and consequently should be at the top of boardroom, policy and legislative agendas.

Toby Peyton-Jones is HR director for Siemens UK and Northern Europe

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