Social Mobility Commission - Automation will disproportionately impact low-skilled workers

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez April 30, 2019
The Social Mobility Commission’s annual State of the Nation report has found that social mobility has remained virtually stagnant since 2014 - but also highlights the risks posed by automation.

The government’s Social Mobility Commission has this week published its annual State of the Nation report, which states that inequality is now entrenched in Britain from birth to work. In addition to the claim that social mobility has remained virtually stagnant since 2014, the Commission also highlights that the changing nature of work and future automation will disproportionately impact low-skilled workers.

The report notes that the rise in the gig economy, the hollowing out of the labour market, and the Fourth Industrial Revolution, all have one consistent consequence - what the Commission calls “job shock”. It describes this as a “rapid shockwave of changes to the nature of work, and the consequent impact on the workers”.

It refers to varied research carried out by a number of organisations, that includes:

  • 30 per cent of existing UK jobs are at high risk of job shock by the early 2030s (PWC)

  • 35 per cent of jobs in the UK are at high risk of automation by 2030 (Oxford researchers, Frey and Osborne)

  • 43 per cent of UK work activities have the technical potential to be automated by adapting current technology (McKinsey)

Whilst the Commission notes that the results of research vary, due to being based on theoretical technological capabilities, across the studies it is broadly estimated that there is a seven in ten change that ten million low-skilled jobs could be lost. All the studies estimate that low to mid-skilled jobs are the most vulnerable.

Each study also claims that job losses will be offset by the creation of new jobs, but those new jobs will predominantly be in mid-high skilled work.

As a result, the Commission notes that “this will therefore only benefit those who are made redundant if they are given the opportunity to retrain and upskill”.

Dame Martina Milburn, chair of the Commission, said:

“It is vital that young people have more choice to shape their own lives. This means not only ensuring that they get better qualifications, but making sure they have an informed choice to take up an apprenticeship rather than taking a degree, to find a job which is fulfilling and the choice to stay where they grew up rather than moving away.”

The report also notes that the effects of automation and the broader changing nature of work will be more prominently felt in the north-east and south-west of England. London, which has a high concentration of high skilled and service-sector jobs, is forecast to face little impact at all. Whereas, almost all other areas of England will see larger impacts, as they typically have more low skilled workers.

To counter this, the government needs to focus on adult education, argues the Commission. It states:

“Within this context of the rapidly changing nature of work, adult education and training needs to be a crucial aspect of Britain’s strategy to achieve its goals to improve productivity and meet its creative potential.

“However, there are stubborn issues with the system as it stands: a poor in-work training culture among British employers on average, a fragmented, inflexible and underfunded adult education system, and a consistent low take-up of training and adult education among low paid British workers. But if social mobility is to improve, Britain needs a skills system that enables a lifetime of education and training whilst in work.”

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