Job automation seen as a key digital challenge in new policy report

Whichever party or coalition forms the next UK Government will face a raft of serious challenges with the emerging digital economy, including making plans for the automation of up to a third of existing jobs. That is the main conclusion of a new report published this week by The House of Lords. Make or Break: The UK’s Digital Future, argues that the next 20 years will present the UK with a range of profound challenges and opportunities and it is incumbent on the Government to address them at the earliest opportunity. As well as imminent and well known  issues such as the need to roll out ultrafast broadband countrywide and the development of skills and digital clusters, the report also highlights the particular issue of what to do about the claim that up to 35 percent of jobs over the next two decades will be automated.

Although the report acknowledges the efforts made by previous governments, it also concludes that digital programmes have been hampered by a lack of co-ordination, specifically with the involvement of too many departments and ministers.  It calls on the government to treat digital infrastructure and policy making as it would any essential utility and to centralise control under one minister.

Some of the report’s key findings and recommendations include:

  • There is an urgent need to address the digital divide, especially with the provision of broadband in rural areas.
  • The government should do more to educate and train people in relevant skills and do more to encourage women to take up roles in core STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) occupations.
  • Cyber security should become a central part of the national digital infrastructure agenda.
  • Digital skills and creativity should become a core element in the schools and education curriculum.
  • More should be done to address the short term skills gap, with continuous professional development, industry involvement and encouraging the immigration of skilled people all seen as key factors.
  • The government should strive to get buy in from local authorities who are in a position to develop regional digital clusters.
  • It should also Encourage the creation of new roles to meet the challenges and exploit the opportunities offered by the coming wave of job automation.

On this last point, the report is anxious that the government can address the structural changes that will come in the wake of advanced robotics and automation technology. “The digital revolution is changing the labour market fundamentally,” it says. “For instance, advanced robots are gaining enhanced senses and dexterity, allowing them to perform a broader range of non-routine manual tasks. This is likely to change the nature of work across industries and occupations. With the improved sensing available to robots, jobs in transportation and logistics are now, for the first time, fully automatable. The autonomous cars being developed by Google, for example, theoretically could make bus and taxi drivers, along with many logistics occupations, redundant. In addition, the potential scope of  automation now extends to cognitive, as well as manual work. According to a recent study, approximately 35 percent of the UK workforce is susceptible to automation over the next two decades. The research indicates that the jobs least at risk from computerisation are in areas such as: senior management and financial services; computers, engineering and science; education; legal services; community services; the arts and media; and health care. The jobs most at risk are in: office and administrative support work; sales and services; transportation; construction and extraction; and production (manufacturing).”