Over recent years the mix of our labour force has changed dramatically as manufacturing moved aboard and technology replaced many roles. The problem of what to do with low skilled workers in the face of technological progress is a daunting one. The Economist recently restarted the debate again with this article and the issue has been furthered discussed at Davos , whilst technology such as drone usage for deliveries creates employment in monitoring and servicing that technology the lower skill delivery jobs suffer. This is especially apparent in the grocery industry. Job numbers have declined for frontline low skill workers as self-service and “scan as you shop” terminals are introduced requiring less on-the-ground support. As we see the further introduction of automation to frontline services such as robot check out assistants or window cleaners there will be a deficiency of traditional roles for those workers. Robots are improving some workers productivity such as in the Amazon distribution centres but how long is it before the machines replace the workers? The technological progress that removes some basic jobs such as bank cashiers can also create more new roles in the form of phone based customer service jobs for online banking. While there are sure to be some roles created by the progress there will not be enough. How do we handle this fundamental shift?
We cannot simply enrol these individuals into the benefits system this is unsustainable – the experience of France shows that there is a level at which taxing the rich to provide for the rest just stops working. Retraining will work for some but not everyone will be suited to new roles, servicing and supporting technology, and there will just be fewer jobs in total leaving many without a form of gainful employment. Even skilled jobs in the low end of logistics will take a hit as big data radically reduces the need for multiple individuals to work. Initiatives such as Amazons anticipatory shipping and fully automated warehouses will reduce jobs still further. Adaptation is a fundamental human strength and it is what we must do to ensure jobs for the future.
The last Labour government was relaxed about the loss of manufacturing jobs to China talking about how the UK would become a “knowledge economy” but we never adjusted what goes on in schools to match that. Now we could consider regulation on Corporations and the economy to try and minimise the damage to low skilled workers as an option. The UK should implement careful educational management to curtail much of the effect of automation. Specialist education for those unsuitable for the professions must begin early in the school journey and people should stay in some form of education (even part time) until they do reach some minimum literacy and numeracy standards. Benefits must also be radically reformed, current cuts are not enough and to remove dependency there really needs to be no real alternative to taking employment. There cannot be the situation where the difference between working every day and not working is an insubstantial sum. Paying someone for nothing doesn’t make sense, if benefits are to remain at current levels then those that receive them need to be mobilised back into the economy. We really shouldn’t have the situation of thousands of low/unskilled vacancies having to be filled with migrants. We shouldn’t have reports from employers that young school leavers do not have the ‘grit’ to succeed and lack ‘basic skills’. Optimising the output of our current population would be very beneficial in welfare savings and would also improve feelings of self-worth. This is not to say that migration does not have a place, it is after all incredibly useful in filling vacancies such as those in our tech industry.
The solution may seem simple but it is complex, optimise education as we have begun to optimise every aspect of our lives. Use big data analytics to shape children’s educations providing alternative learning methods to best utilise their cognitive abilities. Unless we begin to look at how we might do this now for the future the effects on our future will be as damaging as the pension black hole I have previously blogged about. However, I fear that the short termism of our political system will not enable this to happen in time.
Historically technological progress has eliminated jobs but also created a raft of new ones. This trend will continue but it will not be in the unskilled labour market.
In 20 years do I think I will be hitching a ride in a driverless car and paying for it via some infrared laser beam shot from my eyes via google glass or a contact lens? The answer dear reader is no.
I do not believe that the future will become so bleak in the predicted 20 year time frame as such predictions are more unreliable than weather/economic forecasts. We haven’t even got a half decent phone signal; (3G or H+) throughout the UK yet (ask anyone that lives in the Home Counties!) and are yet to see fibre introduced to all homes. Driverless cars, though an exciting technology are unlikely to reach the level of penetration that puts multiple drivers out of work for many years due to cost, approval and required improvements. Even self-service checkouts first introduced in the 1990’s have not ousted the traditional check out assistant because well, they don’t always work effectively! Yes technology is advancing rapidly but the rate it disseminates into our lives is far slower. It is worth taking this as a warning, to continue economic growth and succeed on the global stage we need to have a mobile, skilled, useful and employed workforce! I think the real threat to low skilled work and subsequently higher skilled work is further off than is currently predicted because really automation can really benefit some industries but ruin others… I mean don’t you just hate automated call centres?