Automation job losses will deepen north-south divide, says report

30 Jan 2018 By Marianne Calnan

North east and Yorkshire cities will be the hardest hit by future trends, while Oxford, Cambridge and London escape relatively unscathed

Jobs based in the north of England are the most susceptible in the UK to being replaced or significantly affected by automation and globalisation, according to a new study.

The report, published yesterday (29 January) by the Centre for Cities think tank, found that seven of the 10 cities most likely to lose jobs because of upcoming technological changes were in the north. While on average 18 per cent of roles in southern cities were deemed at risk before 2030, this reached 29 per cent in certain northern locations and 23 per cent on average outside London and the south.

Tony Burke, assistant general secretary for manufacturing at Unite the Union, told People Management that the north’s “high concentration” of warehouses, manufacturers and factory work meant roles there were more vulnerable to automation because of the “repetitive nature of work” found in such settings.

The Centre for Cities said nine areas of the UK could lose an average of 21 per cent of their jobs by 2030, with administrative, shop and warehouse-based roles most at risk. This, it warned, was equivalent to 3.6 million jobs across the country as a whole.

Mansfield, Sunderland and Wakefield were named the top three cities most susceptible to job losses, closely followed by Stoke, Doncaster and Blackburn. By contrast, ‘higher skilled’ areas could see just 13 per cent of jobs under threat: Oxford, Cambridge and Reading topped the list of the most secure locations, followed by Worthing, London and Edinburgh.

There was a strong correlation between the risk of automation and the vote to exit the EU. The five most threatened cities all recorded Leave votes of more than 60 per cent in last year’s referendum, compared to just 30 per cent in Oxford and 26 per cent in Cambridge.

But pay appeared to be the single most important determining factor in susceptibility to automation. Average weekly earnings in Mansfield were just £472 in 2017, with Sunderland at £482. Oxford and Cambridge residents earned around 50 per cent more.

Andrew Carter, chief executive of the Centre for Cities, said introducing robots into workplaces had the potential to compound the north-south divide, and deepen economic and political divisions.

Burke, however, said robots would not “take over” jobs in the way many expect. Co-bots, he said, will work alongside employees to speed up processes and tasks rather than assume their responsibilities entirely. “Technology needs to be harnessed to be advantageous to workplaces. HR professionals must recognise what is happening – this technology will change the world of work,” he said, adding that employers need to reskill and upskill employees to “protect employment”.

Howard Sloane, managing partner at Teslo HR, assured HR professionals that technology would give rise to a “changing employment landscape. Businesses have a funny habit of reshaping, and you often find that, during this reshaping, the broad skill base can readjust.” 

Prime minister Theresa May pledged the government’s commitment to secure “the jobs of tomorrow” during a speech at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland last week (25 January). She reiterated  plans to create a national retraining scheme to help employees develop new skills to equip “people with the skills they need – and the skills business needs – to be successful in a changing global economy”. 

May warned that the flexibilities that come in tandem with technology must “work for everyone”, and not “become a one-sided deal that can become exploitative”.

Recent research has confirmed that pay is likely to impact on the susceptibility of jobs to automation, with figures published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies on 4 January suggesting that the rapid rise in the national living wage (NLW) may mean robots replace human jobs more quickly. The NLW stands at £7.50 per hour for employees 25 and over, and will increase by 4.4 per cent to £7.85 by April 2018. It is expected to reach £9 per hour by 2020.

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