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Workers are worried about automation – here’s what HR needs to know

7 Jun 2018 By Rachel Reeves

Rachel Reeves explains why the profession has some serious thinking to do about the impact of new technology

Moving to greater automation offers significant opportunities for businesses and consumers. But it also poses considerable challenges, not least to workers who will understandably be concerned by suggestions that between 15 and 30 per cent of UK jobs are at high risk of automation by 2030.

It’s important that businesses, and indeed HR, start to think about some of the questions posed by increasing automation. Automation could help tackle our long-standing productivity puzzle, but the UK needs to be ready to ensure workers are reskilled and do not lose out as a result.

It’s important too that we don’t just think about automation as being about cutting-edge industries or roles. Staff in the everyday economy where most people work, such as retail and health and social care, also need to get technological and other support, such as training, so they can boost their productivity and improve the quality of their jobs. 

As a committee, we want to look at some of these issues as part of our new inquiry on automation, examining its likely impact on businesses, consumers and workers, and exploring the opportunities for the UK to be a world leader in automation.

Businesses with higher levels of growth tend to have higher levels of automation. Companies are seeking it out to deal with the growing volume of tasks they are required to undertake and to be able to grow. Successful use of automation could increase the quality and output of businesses and help drive up productivity from its decade of stagnation. It could also enable British firms to compete on price in national and global markets – not by a race-to-the-bottom on pay and benefits for employees, but on more efficient and reliable production.

But working people are understandably concerned when they fear their jobs might be the ones to go as the economy moves towards increased automation. The UK’s workforce does fare better than the US or Japan, where almost half of jobs are easily automated, thanks in part to the number of skilled, creative jobs in our economy that are hard to replicate by automation. In the past, technology changed and created jobs rather than threatening them, and it is possible that this will be the case for a growth in automation too. But that provides little comfort to those whose jobs may be at risk in the short and medium term.

Businesses will look to automation to raise their productivity and profits, but it is vital that they make sure their employees are not left behind. For those leading companies and those working in HR, they should be thinking now about what automation may mean for their workforce. This must include how they can support their staff to develop the skills required to make sure they are able to adapt to the changing economy. While it is tempting to rely on the government and the education system for skills training, businesses will benefit from effective and relevant reskilling rather than relying simply on a churn of employees. My committee’s inquiry will look specifically at reskilling and the role of companies in supporting and providing this, and welcomes written evidence from businesses that are already making progress in this area and those that want to see more support.

The opportunities that technology provides in solving the UK’s productivity puzzle must not be taken at the expense of successful companies, workers and consumers. Leaders in people management across businesses have a pivotal role in the coming months and years to make sure good work is at the heart of business development, no matter where in the economy they are working. My committee’s work will make recommendations on how best to do this, but responsible companies should not wait to react effectively to the challenges and opportunities of automation.

Rachel Reeves is chair of the business, energy and industrial strategy committee and Labour MP for Leeds West

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