The robots are coming - but are British workers ready for them?

Britain is ill-prepared for the rise of the robots, warned the director of The Jobs Economist John Philpott, at a debate hosted by the Lord Mayor at Mansion House earlier this week.

At the second-annual City & Guilds Group Skills Debate, chaired by Andrew Neil, panellists clashed over the impact of trends including an ageing population, the rise of the ‘Uber economy’, and whether British businesses are sufficiently agile to weather these changes.

The panel, comprised of Philpott, Sherry Coutu (Tech Entrepreneur and Founder of the Scale-Up Institute), Sahar Hashemi (Founder of Coffee Republic) and City & Guilds Group Chief Executive Chris Jones, discussed whether workplace innovations such as automation would spell disaster for British workers. They also considered the findings of the City & Guilds Group’s recent  Skills Confidence research, which indicated that 75% of British employees are confident that their job will exist in ten years’ time, and 18% do not think there are any threats that could stop their skills being relevant. The debate was streamed live on Periscope and can be viewed in full here.

Philpott warned that we are likely to see further decline in middle skilled jobs, with work taking on an hourglass structure, split between high-skilled, problem-solving jobs at the top and, at the bottom, a large proportion of relatively poor jobs often providing considerable instability. He also questioned whether SMEs are investing in learning and development for their employees, and suggested that to truly future-proof the economy, we need to address the poverty of aspiration within the education system.

Nevertheless, Philpott said he is not particularly worried about the rise of the robots ‘because historical precedents say that technological change creates at least as many jobs as it destroys’. He did however predict that ‘the loss of routine skilled jobs is going to spread quite widely into professional and managerial and technical jobs’.

Both Coutu and Hashemi took a more optimistic view, arguing that there is growing recognition of the role of training. Coutu said she believed the ‘the future is bright’ because educational technology tools are in the hands of teachers and students’. She also suggested that the pattern of employment is changing, commenting: ‘In 20 years’ time young people may have four or five part-time jobs. We will see power shift from employers.’

Hashemi argued that while robots can do routine jobs, ‘there is plenty a robot can't do’ and that humans can set themselves apart by displaying empathy. She also said that in tomorrow’s world, ‘businesses will need to adopt the strategy of start-ups, including agility, freedom and risk averseness, as that is where the opportunity lies’, but recognised that these two worlds are already converging.

Speaking about the increasing importance of employers investing in training their workforce, especially for older workers, Jones noted that ‘expectations about work are changing’ and that in the future, employers ‘will have to think about what is our value to young people'. Referring to the Skills Confidence research findings, he also expressed concern about 'blissful ignorance' amongst the global workforce about the future of work.  

Sir John Armitt, Chairman of the City & Guilds Group, concluded the debate, adding: ‘The main need is for aspiration and that is the biggest challenge we face in our education system. It is how we turn out young people who have this innate sense of aspiration.’

Speaking at the debate, Chris Jones said: ‘The world of work is changing. And it’s changing fast. What’s not clear is if people are ready for it, as our research shows that many employees appears to be in a state of blissful ignorance. For businesses to succeed in the new world, they need to leverage the opportunities that technology brings without forgetting that ‘people buy from people.’ That means supporting their employees in developing skills in leadership and management, so they are prepared for the future.