Automation could replace 1.4 million UK jobs in 2021


Faethm AI today announces key findings from its UK Workforce Forecast 2021, which reveals the potential impact of technology on the UK workforce.

The study by future of work platform Faethm, based its modelling and ONS data, found that the equivalent of 1.4 million full-time roles could be automated in the UK in the next year, 4.8% of the work currently undertaken across the country, with different industries and geographies likely to be disproportionately affected.

The study outlines the state of the UK jobs market and the employment challenges and opportunities faced by both businesses and the government, as the combined pressures of economic downturn and the unique challenges of COVID-19 accelerate the implementation of automating technologies in the workplace. These technologies are likely to significantly influence levels of employment (currently at 5.1%), and the employability of UK workers themselves in 2021 and beyond.

The risk of skills and large portions of existing job roles becoming redundant is a potential by-product of technological change. Faethm’s data indicates that many of the staple jobs of UK workers may cease to exist in the future, and that intervention from businesses and government to retain, retrain and redeploy employees is critical to maintain or improve employment levels and increase productivity.

Its forecast suggests the wholesale and retail and financial services sectors are most at risk of being automated; together these sectors comprise almost 5 million UK workers, with over 9% of work – the equivalent of 932,000 full-time roles – across both potentially automatable.

The data also highlights some geographical disparities in the potential impact of automation. Once adjusted for population differences, the regions with the highest proportion of work with the potential to be automated include Wales (5.3%), Northern Ireland (5.2%) and the North-West of England (5.1%), demonstrating how different areas of the UK may be disproportionately affected by the introduction of new technologies.

Technology does not have to be a threat to jobs, however. Faethm’s analysis shows that technology can augment human work rather than replacing it, and that automation gives us the opportunity to replace less enjoyable, routine tasks while opening up avenues for workers to use more of the rich human skills that cannot be replicated by machines, particularly as the country remodels its economy following the pandemic.

Its modelling suggested that 2.9% of work in the UK could be augmentable using technologies that are already available in 2021. If applied correctly, this would result in a 1.3% capacity gain across the whole economy – meaning that work would take 1.3% less time to complete. The IT and Media sectors would gain the most, with 6.5% of work potentially augmentable, leading to a capacity increase of 3%. As one of the country’s largest employers, the education sector would also benefit hugely; 5% – the equivalent of 131,300 full-time roles – could be automated, delivering a 1.9% capacity boost.

Reflecting on the findings, Nan Craig, Data Analyst at Faethm, comments: “Even ordinary downturns tend to increase automation, as companies are tempted to replace expensive labour with cheaper automated systems. However, the new conditions created by Covid-19 – and the need to reduce human interaction in public places – are making automation more attractive than in an ordinary recession. In-person human labour is becoming more expensive, due to safety considerations around space, PPE, and the ability to take time off to self-isolate, whereas machines and automated systems, in comparison, can be added without increasing infection risks, at a comparatively lower cost. Longer-term changes in consumer behaviour could make a difference too, as more interactions shift online, meaning businesses are more likely to be considering automation than without the Covid-19 crisis.”

Some jobs may change, decline or become less common as automating technologies begin to replace certain tasks, but Faethm’s analysis predicts that plenty of roles will emerge and increase as the UK starts to embrace automation and augmentation. It predicts that there an additional 382,800 full time equivalent roles could be needed in technology-related roles if the UK workforce were to deliver in full on potential automation opportunities.

Faethm’s EMEA VP James McLeod adds: “Employers and employees alike need to change their perspective. The future of work is already here, and the introduction of technology does not affect work in a uniform way. We must acknowledge where it supplements existing work, and invest in a targeted reskilling approach that recognises the new roles technology is creating, and ensures human and machine labour complement one another. Doing so will not only help businesses add capacity and increase productivity, but also ensure they are looking after employees, making financially beneficial and morally responsible decisions, and creating a digitally adept workforce for the future.”