Three-quarters of workers want to develop new skills – but employers deny them the opportunity

Fear of automation fuelling desire for learning, says survey, as CIPD urges greater openness over effects of technology

Despite an appetite to learn and develop new skills in the face of increasing automation, most UK workers are not being offered upskilling opportunities by their employers, new research has revealed. 

The Upskilling Hopes and Fears research – which surveyed 2,004 working adults across the UK – showed that almost three-quarters (73 per cent) of people would take the opportunity to better understand and use new technology in the workplace if they were given the option. And 54 per cent said they were ready to learn new skills or completely retrain to improve their future employability. 

But less than half (49 per cent) of workers said their employer gave them the chance to improve their digital skills outside of their normal duties. 

PwC, which commissioned the research, said this disparity between those who want to learn and those who are given the chance to do so was fuelling mistrust and fear of automation in the workplace. Three in five (58 per cent) of the UK adults surveyed said they ‘feared’ automation was putting jobs at risk. 

Kevin Ellis, chairman of PwC UK, said this resonated beyond the workplace, and he warned: “Without combined efforts from governments, businesses and NGOs, swathes of people risk being left behind, exacerbating social and economic inequalities. The UK’s track record in education and innovation means we’re phenomenally well placed to step up and take action.”

The poll also highlighted the need for organisations to look at learning and development opportunities for staff to ensure they have the skills necessary to integrate new technology into their working lives. 

More than half (56 per cent) of workers believed technology would change their current job over the coming decade, while 29 per cent thought their roles would be significantly changed or become obsolete over the same period. 

Edward Houghton, head of research and thought leadership at the CIPD, told People Management that the nature of jobs would change as organisations sought new technologies to enhance productivity and profitability, and employers that coupled their investments in automation with improvement in people management would see the biggest gains. 

“As with all change programmes, it’s critical that HR professionals focus on transparent, open and clear dialogue with employees about the extent to which their job is likely to change,” Houghton said. “This includes working with employees to understand how the specific tasks they do are likely to alter or transform entirely as a result of automation in the workplace.”

Houghton emphasised that employers would need to train and develop employees in areas such as critical thinking, logical reasoning and social or relationship-based skills, as previous CIPD research had shown that new technology would make jobs more complex. 

Workers in the PwC survey were prepared to take on a number of responsibilities and development opportunities if they believed their job was at risk of being replaced or made obsolete by automation. 

Nearly three-quarters (73 per cent) said they would take on part-time training, while 49 per cent said they would participate in full-time programmes and 39 per cent said they would accept a lesser position in another company or industry. A third (33 per cent) said they would accept a lower salary to secure their future. 

Dan Lucy, principal research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies, said there were real risks for employers in not upskilling their workforces – not least the ability to realise the potential benefits of automation and artificial intelligence.

“One of the greatest challenges employers face when seeking to introduce new technology is cultural, and upskilling is one way to help create a culture that is ready and able to help implement new approaches,” Lucy said. 

“Research is clearly showing that the employers that are furthest ahead in the adoption of new technology are those that have found ways to work with employees to redesign jobs and work in ways that make the most of the unique and different capabilities of both machines and people.”