The Office for National Statistics announced this week that 1.5 million jobs in England are at risk of being replaced by automation. Computer programs, algorithms, and robots are forecast to replace a variety of roles in the future, and those roles which are low-skill and routine-driven.
The ONS reached its findings by analysing the jobs of 20 million people in England in 2017. It found that 7.4% of those jobs are at ‘high risk’ of replacement by automation.
Most notable in the ONS findings is the warning that women and young people are statistically most vulnerable to automation. 70.2% of high-risk roles are currently held by women, while people aged 20-24 are more likely to be replaced by automation than people in other age groups.
This is due to the nature of the roles typically filled by young people and women. The three highest risk occupations are listed as food service, shelf fillers, and retail roles.
Automation can already be seen in these roles – for example, with the introduction of self-service checkouts.
Because of the link between risk and type of occupation, levels of projected automation also vary by region.
The occupations at lowest risk are medical practitioners, university teaching professionals, and senior education professionals – all high-skill roles.
Case Study: The hyper-productive sushi robot
It’s not all doom and gloom. The reason automation is set to make such great strides is because it offers a net benefit to businesses. California-based AUTEC has built sushi robots which can produce 200 sushi rolls or 2,400 nigiri rice balls an hour. AUTEC has laid out five ways it claims to benefit restaurant businesses.
- Consistency and speed – “Traditionally, it takes 3 years to learn how to make sushi rice and another 8 years for preparing and serving of sushi. Our sushi machines can be operated by a novice chef and produce consistent forms of “perfect” sushi, while maintaining a rapid production speed.”
- Labour assurance – “Our products simplify the operation of a sushi business by removing concerns of employment turnover risks as well as excess labour costs.”
- Cost effective – “Our sushi robots not only increase production with little daily maintenance but also lessens overhead expenses such as staff and labour-related expenditures.”
- Stand out from competitors – “Our products require only 1 hour of training for new employees to create the perfect sushi which gives you the opportunity to focus on creating innovative dishes and experiences beyond your competitors.”
- Safety compliance – “The simplicity of our machines reduces the need for direct food contact which not only lowers the risk of cross contamination, but also creates a safe and clean environment for your employees and customers.”
It does not seem a stretch that automation could reduce human error, increase productivity, and free up skilled workers from routine tasks in other sectors, too.
Making automation work for everyone
Business leaders and employees do not have to simply accept that some groups will be worse affected than others. As Barry Matthews, Managing Partner for North Europe, ISG, says: “Automation might claim 1.5 million current jobs, but it’ll create a lot more. Most of those jobs won’t even exist yet.”
These future occupations represent an opportunity. If businesses are proactive, they can protect their workforces – and improve the gender skills gap, while they’re at it – by reskilling their employees in preparation.
Barry says: “Every business needs a five-year workforce strategy plan that includes reskilling. Automation will create as many jobs as it kills – jobs that are higher value. Your employees could upskill and shift into another area, with the right training.
“Don’t think about replacing your workforce, think about reshaping it.”
It may not be a straightforward process – a fact that Barry acknowledges.
“It’s a challenge, not just for business, but for education. How do you equip people to do a job that doesn’t yet exist? Skills like aptitude, communication, flexibility, problem-solving will become more important than knowing how to do a specific task.
“Don’t recruit for specific tasks, recruit for the ability to learn new skills.”
The most forward-thinking businesses will take the coming shift in their workforce priorities as an opportunity to address endemic inequalities. Reskill a diverse workforce – and reap the benefits of more nuanced business perspectives.