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Rise of the machines

With increased automation changing the way we work, how will we need to adapt?

Towards the end of 2016, coinciding with TV series such as Humans and Westworld, many articles appeared discussing the “danger from robots” and the likely impact of increasing levels of automation on employment. Some were more sensationalist than others and painted “doomsday” scenarios, with global mass unemployment the predicted outcome.

More moderate and well-sourced articles also predicted a future where many existing jobs will be fully or partially automated, and the challenge of the resulting economic and social impact for policy makers.

In May 2017, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) published Scotland Skills 2030, a paper that looked at the future of employment and skills in Scotland. It predicted that changes in technology put 46 per cent of existing jobs in Scotland at risk of automation by 2030. These include many highly-skilled roles that would usually be thought secure for life.

The IPPR also forecast that people will have to work until they’re much older, and across a range of jobs for numerous employers. An occupation for life, never mind a job for life, is predicted to become a thing of the past – and even for those who train for jobs that can survive technological change, adaptability will be essential as many existing roles will change significantly.

A new revolution?

Many commentators feel we are on the cusp of a change that will impact society much as the Industrial Revolution did in the 18th and 19th centuries. But there is no reason why this so-called automation revolution cannot benefit society and individuals. There is potential for more rewarding careers and flexibility that improves the work/life balance.

While some experts warn of mass unemployment, other forecasters are quietly confident that new technology will create many new jobs and positive ways of working and living that will offset the loss of existing roles.

We don’t need to look far in Scotland to see individuals and communities hurt by the loss of traditional heavy industry. Research by the Centre of Regional Economic Research into the loss of UK coal fields estimated that 60 per cent of jobs had been replaced 20 years after mass closures – which still leaves a large gap of 40 per cent.

The price paid by many individuals and communities for economic ‘progress’ was high and is still felt today. So without intervention and a conscious policy shift, there is a danger that too many people will be left adrift.

The IPPR recognises that action will need to happen to ensure that Scotland’s workforce is future-proofed. The suggestions put forward to manage increased automation and longer working lives focus, in a large part, on skills development.

It recognises that as many jobs change and evolve, it will become essential to be able to retrain for new careers and adapt to ensure skills stay relevant.

The suggestions focus on policy creation that place continuous skills development and increased connection between employers, training providers and educational establishments at the heart of any future skills strategy.

Unlike current skills and education policy, which places most of the emphasis on training young people to enter the labour market, the focus will be on ongoing training and career guidance for individuals of all ages.

The skills paradox

Despite the challenges of automation, a paradox exists where most employers predict that skills shortages will be an ongoing factor in the future, with many organisations already unable to fill the vacancies that currently exist.

A continuation of that paradox is that businesses are less likely to invest in developing skills in existing employees as the level of automation increases. The more replaceable a role is perceived to be, the less likely an employer is to invest in the skills of the employee who is working in an ‘at risk’ role.

It is not common practice within the UK to look for ways to redirect and retrain existing employees to unrelated new roles. Our culture tends to place people in boxes in terms of role types. We may retrain people from a receptionist to sales, but are unlikely to retrain an accountant as an engineer. Innovative ways to address this issue will be essential and intervention will be vital at a government level.

Changing careers and reskilling mid-career is nothing new. The scale will be a new challenge and traditional approaches to training people for new careers will not be effective or flexible enough. More work will need to done on career pathways within existing jobs, increasing productivity and finding ways to work with new technology. Changing careers at any age is possible, but lack of resources and the need to maintain certain income levels limit flexibility. Realistic ways of addressing these barriers will need to be found.

How will it impact us?

The sector we work in will not be exempt. Some non-electrical roles in many electrical companies are likely to disappear, and the day job of an electrician will change as new building methods and technology are embedded.

These changes will create many opportunities and have the potential to create new skilled electrical roles. However, it may also reduce the need for skilled electricians to carry out some of today’s more routine tasks. So there will be new technologies to contend with, and new ways of working.

While many electricians actively upskill and develop already, there are still a small number of individuals who are happy to complete training and see their current skills as sufficient for life. This approach is not likely to be sustainable in the future.

It is likely that the level of upskilling and training will need to increase for us all, including electricians. It may be that we can use advancements in technology to train people in different ways at the start of their electrical careers, whether they are 16 or 36.

I cannot predict what the future will bring. However, I feel confident in stating that being willing and able to adapt and learn, no matter what stage of your working life or job role, will become the most essential skill of all.

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