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Automation high on employers’ agenda as skills gaps set to bite

27 Feb 2017 By Georgi Gyton

Minister suggests technology can fill farmers’ Brexit talent gaps, while Aviva reportedly asks staff if their jobs could be done by robots

An increasing number of companies are considering how automation and artificial intelligence can help cut costs and fill recruitment gaps in the near future.

At last week’s annual National Farmers’ Union (NFU) Conference, the topic of how technology and automation could be implemented within the food and farming sector was hotly debated.

Robots are already been used to do the jobs of fruit pickers, as well as feeding and milking cows, but the government’s food and rural affairs secretary, Andrea Leadsom, suggested increased usage of this kind of technology could also replace many of the gaps left by the reduction in EU workers post-Brexit.

As reported by the Observer, Harry Hall, managing partner of fruit supplier Hall Hunter Partnership, told delegates at the NFU Conference that he thinks robotic picking machines – which use 3D cameras and sensors to automatically gauge when fruit is ready before picking and grading it ready for shipment – are not yet economically viable. But a change in the flow of workers from the EU could soon change that.

“If Theresa May decides in 2019 ‘that’s it, you’re on your own’, that would radically impact my approach to robots. I would have 500 robots in two years and probably spend £5m on [them],” he reportedly said.

Yesterday it was reported that insurance company Aviva was to question 16,000 of its British workforce about whether they believe their jobs could be done by a robot instead. According to The Sunday Times, employees who say ‘yes’ will be retrained for an alternative position at the company.

While the the validity of reports about Aviva surveying staff has been called into question – People Management understands that the claims have been “slightly exaggerated” – the insurance company said it had been having conversations with its employees about where it can implement robot process automation for several years, and started using ‘robots’ in 2015.

Diego Zuluaga, financial services research fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs, told People Management that the use of automation “will increasingly become common place as things move forward. The process of automation doesn’t necessarily mean you will shrink your workforce as an employer, it means you will increasingly transfer human resources from activities that can be done by machines to areas where persuasion and the human component is much more important, such as sales or marketing.”

Zuluaga said that while there would be particular instances where people may be temporarily displaced with jobs, “on aggregate, what you will find with automation is that productivity increases and that people tend to move to higher-value roles”.

A report released by Accenture Strategy in January found that, if the rate at which workers build relevant skills was doubled, the share of jobs at risk of total automation in the UK by 2025 would fall from 9 to 6 per cent. Nearly nine in 10 (87 per cent) of the 10,527 workers Accenture surveyed in 10 countries said they expected parts of their job to be automated in the next five years. Of those who believed they would be affected by automation, four-fifths (80 per cent) said they thought it would bring more opportunities than challenges at work.  

“The truly human skills, from leadership to creativity, will remain highly relevant, and winning organisations will strike the right balance – leveraging the best of technology to elevate, not eliminate, their people,” said Ellyn Shook, chief leadership and human resources officer at Accenture. “Not only are workers optimistic, but they understand they must learn new skills. Digital can accelerate learning by embedding training seamlessly into daily work – so learning becomes a way of life – helping workers and organisations remain relevant.”

Telecoms giant O2 has also recently spoken about its plans to replace human beings with technology. As parent company Telefónica unveiled its new voice recognition technology, called Aura, at the Mobile World Congress exhibition – currently taking place in Barcelona – O2 chief executive Mark Evans said the company was looking to cut costs within its customer service operation by encouraging customers to talk to a new artificially intelligent robot instead of a human being at one of its call centres.

In December last year Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, warned that up to 15 million jobs in the UK could be automated over time.
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