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Report - Workers fear that they’re being replaced by robots and are worried that their employers aren’t helping them to adapt

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez August 6, 2018
A new Commission on Workers and Technology has been created in the UK to help challenge the government, employers and trade unions on issues around automation and AI.

AI terminator
Some 23 percent of workers in the UK - more than 6 million - fear that their job roles could be replaced by AI, robots and automation in the coming decade. And more worryingly, almost half (41 percent) don’t believe that their employers are taking action to help them get ready for the change.

This is according to a survey that has been released by a new commission that has been established - the Commission on Workers and Technology - which has been organised by the trade union community and the Fabian Society.

Commissioners involved in the new commission are drawn from organisations including TUC, Prospect union, Sage, Google, Nesta and the University of Oxford.

Chaired by Yvette Cooper MP, the Commission is interesting because it aims to prompt the British government to take action on policy and for employers to take action in the workplace, in order to better prepare for the challenges posed by automation.

Cooper said:

The digital revolution means technology and jobs are changing faster than ever.

This survey of workers found that almost a quarter of workers are worried that their job will no longer be needed.

And whilst it found that most people are optimistic that they will be able to change and update their skills, they also say they are not getting any help or support to train or adapt from the government, their employer or a trade union.

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.

Technology can have great benefits as well as create new challenges. Almost half of those surveyed said they thought their job would improve with new technology, however nearly a quarter were worried that their job would go altogether. 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.

The commission has said that it will address: (1) how to ensure technology change leads to good jobs not bad ones; (2) how to support workers to adapt and re-skill; and (3) how government, employers and trade unions can work positively together on this agenda.

The results of the commission’s first survey show that 37 percent of workers (more than 10 million people) are worried about their job changing for the worse, when thinking about the impact of technology in the next decade. In addition, groups who are particularly likely to be worried about their jobs changing for the worse include: 45-54 year olds (43 percent); public sector workers (45 percent); and people in the north of England (45 percent).

And of the people most likely to be positive about working conditions and job satisfaction improving as a result of new technologies, it was men (44 percent) and workers aged 18 to 44 (51 percent).

What’s interesting, however, is that the large majority of workers (73 percent) are confident they will be able to change and update their skills if new technologies impact their current job, but they feel that government and employer support is not there.

Of the people surveyed, only 9 percent agree that the government is taking action to help them prepare for the changing world of work. And only 27 percent of employees would agree that their employer is taking action.

Rick Rickhuss, general secretary of trade union Community, said:

These figures should serve as a wake-up call for all trade unions. The vast majority of workers in unionised workplaces do not believe we are supporting them to cope with technological change.

Automation cannot simply be opposed, rather it should be made to work in the interests of working people. Our members are already dealing with the consequences of automation being managed badly. Government and business need to step up too, but trade unions have a central role to play.

Our movement has been at the forefront of social change over the past century, but without urgent action we risk being left behind as the jobs of the next century are born. This commission is an ambitious piece of work that will take us out of our comfort zone and we are delighted that Yvette Cooper has agreed to lead this work over the coming months.

A recurring theme

This isn’t the first report to talk about the impact of AI and automation on jobs, but it’s a welcome change on a recurring theme - in that it takes into account the concerns of workers themselves.

A recent report, the Impact of AI on UK Constituencies was produced by Future Advocacy, a think tank that pushes for smart policy-making for the Industrial Age. It had an interesting take on the automation challenge as it applied research data by PwC to gauge the impact on different sectors to the local jobs market in each constituency in the UK.

For example, the resulting heat-map revealed that Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s Hayes and Harlington constituency will be the hardest hit by automation, with nearly 40 per cent of jobs at risk by 2030. Its high concentration of transport and storage jobs make it most susceptible to the technologies.

The PwC report itself, meanwhile, showed that over a third of respondents (37%) were worried about the impact of AI on their jobs, although added that 73% believed that technology could never really replace a human.

Meanwhile, the UK government itself has released a report on growing the AI industry in the UK, which my colleague Chris Middleton describes as “academic, disconnected and disappointing”.

The report recommends creating Data Trusts in the UK to ensure that data exchanges are both secure and mutually beneficial, and made a number of recommendations around industry and government sponsoring major programmes to support skills. However, as Chris wrote in diginomica:

[As] a summary of the challenges facing UK AI, robotics, and more, it falls well short of the mark. Its proposed solutions, while excellent, are partial and create the impression that the underlying purpose of this report was to make academia’s voice heard in Whitehall and secure new long-term funding.

No one doubts the stature of the UK’s universities and research institutes, or the world-leading AI and robotics expertise within them, but by appearing to regard AI solely as an academic discipline, the report misses nearly all of the most important challenges facing the UK.

My take

As noted above, this report is interesting because it pushes the voices of workers to the front of the debate on the impact of AI. Too often we get drawn into the excitement around the potential of automation, the opportunities that could be gained, without thinking about the people that could be left behind as a result. Let’s hope that this new commission can apply real pressure to the government to come up with an effective strategy and some new practical policies around addressing the forthcoming changes - working with citizens, employees and trade unions, rather than against them.

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