More than half of HR admin roles at risk of automation, says ONS

But HR managers and leaders are relatively secure, as experts say the function has a role to play in managing the rise of technology

More than half of HR administrative roles are at risk of automation in the future, official data has suggested.

Analysis from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published yesterday – which aimed to quantify which roles and functions were most endangered by technological change – found nearly three in five (58 per cent) HR administrative occupation could be automated, as well as two in five (40 per cent) HR and industrial relations officers roles.

By contrast, just 28 per cent of HR manager and director roles were at risk of automation, in line with the general trend across the economy of higher-level jobs being relatively more secure.

The ONS considers a role to be at high risk when the probability of automation is more than 70 per cent, though it does not specify a time period for this to take place.

Jonny Gifford, senior adviser for organisational behaviour at the CIPD, said his research showed that nothing was inevitable when it came to the rise of technology and the world of work, and that it was critical for employers to consider their use of technology and its impact on their people.

“Employers need to link business priorities and strategy with effective people strategies like considering the impact of augmentation on recruitment, skills gaps in the workplace and how we motivate and upskill our existing workforce,” said Gifford.

“Our research is finding that isn’t happening,” he added, referring to CIPD figures due to be published next month.

Across the economy, the ONS data showed 1.5 million jobs in England were at high risk of some duties and tasks being automated in the future. Waiters and waitresses, shelf-fillers and shop-floor sales staff were rated the most at risk of automation, with doctors and nurses, higher education teaching professionals and senior education staff the safest.

However, the ONS said its analysis did not show that “robots are taking over”, only that routine and repetitive tasks can be carried out “more quickly and efficiently by an algorithm written by a human, or a machine designed for one specific function”. As such, the risk of automation tends to be higher for lower-skilled roles for this reason. 

Tony Dundon, professor of HR management and employment relations at the University of Limerick, told People Management fears over technology often turned out to be unfounded, and said automation had historically led to a mix of higher cognitive skills and new service sector occupations and care work.

“A key challenge for HR is shaping choices that affect both business and wider societal change arising from AI,” he said. If HR wanted to prepare for algorithmic technologies and their effect on the workplace, the profession had to chart the beneficial effects of technology beyond the balance sheet.

“These are the wider benefits to stakeholders and employees – not just to better profit margins,” said Dundon, who is also a visiting professor at the Work and Equalities Institute at the University of Manchester.

“It’s about social dynamics, and how HR has a role to play in the business. HR needs to be elevated and put up as an equal business partner to other decision-makers in order for them to bring about the wider benefits of AI to business.”

He added that HR “may have no time to worry about losing their jobs to robots [as] they’re so busy issuing P45s to all the staff whose jobs are replaced by technology”. 

The ONS analysis also showed more than 70 per cent of roles at high risk of automation were currently held by women, and that people aged 20 to 24 were most likely to be at risk of having their jobs automated when compared to other age groups. 

The risk of job automation decreases for older workers, and is lowest for workers aged between 35 and 39 years, where just 1 per cent are in roles at high risk of automation. 

The ONS said this pattern could be explained by the fact that workers “naturally obtain further skills and become more knowledgeable in their field as they progress further in their careers”. It added young workers may enter the labour market in industries such as sales, retail and other roles where the degree of automation is highly likely.