Amazon’s virtual recruiter had a grudge against women!

Amazon inadvertently built itself a sexist recruitment assistant in a failed experiment that demonstrated why artificial intelligence does not necessarily lead to artificial wisdom.

The company set out to create a virtual hiring tool that would sift thousands of job applications far more efficiently than people can. Unfortunately, the AI algorithm taught itself to discriminate against women based on the fact that many more men had applied for and got jobs in the past.

The new system began to penalise CVs that included the word “women’s”, as in “women’s chess club captain”. It downgraded applications sent by graduates of two all-female universities and prioritised applications that featured verbs more commonly found in male engineers’ CVs, such as “executed” and “captured”.

The company tinkered with the software to remove this bias but was unable to guarantee that no other discriminatory sorting procedures had crept in. The team working on the project was disbanded last year and said that Amazon recruiters looked at the recommendations generated during the trial but never relied exclusively on those rankings. The tool was “never used by Amazon recruiters to evaluate candidates”, the company said.

Amazon began building computer programmes to review job applicants’ CVs in 2014. “Everyone wanted this holy grail,” one source told Reuters. “They literally wanted it to be an engine where I’m going to give you 100 résumés, it will spit out the top five, and we’ll hire those.” However, not only did the AI teach itself gender bias, it would also often recommend unqualified candidates for inappropriate jobs.

Nihar Shah, who teaches machine learning at Carnegie Mellon University, said: “How to ensure that the algorithm is fair, how to make sure the algorithm is really interpretable and explainable — that’s still quite far off.”

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Sick days at record low as worried workers battle on

The days of calling up the boss to cough down the line and weakly say you are too ill to come into work before lying in bed with daytime television are over.

The Office for National Statistics said that the number of sickness days had almost halved over the past two decades to reach a record low. It dropped from an average of 7.2 days in 1993 to 4.1 days in 2017 and had been steadily falling since 1999. The total days lost for all workers last year was 131.2 million, down from 137.3 million in 2016 and 178.3 million in 1993.

Some employment groups have argued that this fall damages the economy because it suggests workers worried about job security are still coming into work even when ill, lowering their productivity levels.

In May the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development reported that the number of companies reporting a rise in employees going into work when they were ill had more than tripled since 2010 and warned that organisations should do more to discourage “presenteeism”.

The ONS acknowledged that there may be an increase in people going into work even when they are ill, but added that the fall could also be due to our healthy life expectancy improving.

The figures also showed that the average number of sick days taken in the private sector is much lower than in the public sector, suggesting that these workers are avoiding sick days as they are at risk of not being paid.

The sickness absence rate, which measures the working hours over the year that are lost to sickness, stands at 2.6 per cent in the public sector and 1.7 per cent in the private sector.

The ONS said: “Higher sickness absence in the public sector is partly explained by the profile of the workforce: it employs more older people and women, both of whom tend to have higher rates of sickness absence; it is more likely to employ staff with a long-standing health condition who are more likely to go off sick and tends to offer more generous sick pay arrangements.”

Since the financial crash, sickness absence rates have declined by 0.5 percentage points to 1.9 per cent last year.

Coughs and colds remained the biggest cause of people taking time off work, making up 26.2 per cent of days lost through sickness absence last year, which equates to about 34.3 million days.

However, the figures also found that there was a rise in young workers aged between 25 and 34 who took time off with mental health problems — the rate in this category rose from 7.2 per cent in 2009 to 9.6 per cent last year.

Women were more likely than men to cite mental health conditions as the reason for being off sick, at about 8.1 per cent of women compared with 5.7 per cent of men. The ONS said that this might be because men were less likely to seek medical help for mental health problems than women.

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Employers get inside your mind by asking if you have an imaginary twin!

Some of Britain’s biggest companies and government departments have started using a new form of “deep” psychological profiling to assess job applicants.

The online assessment asks candidates a series of questions such as “Have you ever had an imaginary twin?” in order to uncover “subconscious latent potential” and weed out job hunters who look good on paper but may perform less well in the office.

The developers say that the 30-minute questionnaire can also reveal underlying motivations and mental health problems.

It asks more than 50 questions, including “When you have done something well, who do you want to know?” and “Remember the moment when you first lost out to a rival. What did you do?” It also examines how people handle conflicts with their family, friends and partners. The researchers say that talking about an imaginary twin allows people to provide insights about themselves that they may otherwise have chosen to keep hidden.

Curly Moloney, one of the founders of The Cambridge Code, said: “Each question tells us a small thing but when put with other answers it becomes a small jigsaw piece in a big picture.”

She added that the test could pick up traits such as inner drive, which does not usually become apparent until after several months in the job. She also believes it can help women in particular.

“I’ve come across many female chief executives who are great at running a company, but don’t interview well,” she said. “I think this is why a lot of women don’t end up on boards, even though they would be very good at it.”

The team created the test after analysing responses and tracking the careers of more than 10,000 people. “The tool is proven to uncover the subconscious latent potential and wellbeing present in all of us, but lies beyond the reach of established psychological measurement,” the company’s website says.

The company says that the test helps to show how flexible and resilient candidates are, their drive and potential and how they deal with authority, which are necessary skills in the modern workplace but are hard to uncover in interviews. It also seeks to establish how good applicants are at managing people and dealing with rivalries.

“To make it to the top of an organisation or a senior leadership role, an individual needs to be able to make tough decisions and to have the capacity to live with the consequences of their actions. In most individuals this element of ‘steel’ or ruthlessness is contained but can flash when necessary,” the company says.

The Cambridge Code does not reveal which companies use its techniques but Dr Moloney says she has worked with a third of FTSE 100 companies as well as governments at home and abroad. The company hopes that the test will also be used in doctors’ surgeries to give a rapid assessment of mental health conditions in patients.

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Wages fail to match booming job market in puzzle for economists

Employment hit a record high and joblessness stayed at a 43-year low in the three months to May, but earnings growth slowed as the labour market continued to confound convention.

The weakness in wage growth, which dipped from 2.6 per cent in April to a six-month low of 2.5 per cent, is unwelcome, but economists said that it was unlikely to deter the Bank of England from lifting interest rates next month.

Markets are pricing a 75 per cent chance of a quarter-point rise to 0.75 per cent in August, which would be the first time that rates have been above 0.5 per cent since March 2009.

Surging jobs growth has been one of the strongest features of Britain’s recovery since the financial crisis, but the wage growth that is meant to accompany low unemployment has yet to appear, baffling observers.

The number of people in work has risen by 137,000 since February to 32.4 million, with the employment rate hitting 75.7 per cent, the highest since comparable records began in 1971, the Office for National Statistics said. Unemployment fell by 12,000 to 1.41 million and the jobless rate remained at 4.2 per cent, its lowest since 1975.

There was little evidence of the jobs boom slowing. The number of vacancies, that is advertised jobs that need filling, was put at 824,000, up 7,000 and at a record high.

Tej Parikh, senior economist at the Institute of Directors, said that although the figures underscored the resilience of the labour market, “sub-par wage growth remains a sting in the tail”. He said that pay was struggling to keep pace with record levels of employment, in part because of heavy cost pressures and weak productivity growth.

Ian Brinkley, acting chief economist at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, said: “The labour market continues to deliver on jobs, but there are a number of underlying weaknesses.

“Much of the job growth has been for part-time work and, as a consequence, total hours worked in the economy have fallen slightly.”

The additional jobs were all full-time positions, but the ONS data showed that the average working week for full-time employees had been cut by 0.3 hours to 37 hours. Total hours worked fell by 300,000 to 1.03 billion between February and May. The drop may have been related to age.

“More than half of the quarterly increase in employment came via the 50 to 64-year-old age cohort,” George Buckley, an economist at Nomura, said.

The economy appears to be picking up after a slow first three months of the year because of the unusually cold weather. The Bank of England is now worried about the impact on inflation. Mark Carney, the governor, said this month that both the economy as a whole and pay were growing, as the Bank had forecast in May, smoothing the way for an August rate rise. Sir Jon Cunliffe, a deputy governor who opposed November’s rate rise, said last week that pay growth did not seem to be breaking out of its recent 2.5 per cent to 3 per cent range. The Bank’s projections suggest that wages will become inflationary above 3 per cent.

Victoria Clarke, at Investec, said that the Bank would “feel the need to move forward with gradual rate rises as it eyes a pick-up in domestically generated inflation”.

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Lorry drivers aren’t in it for the long haul any more!

Britain’s haulage industry is “sleep-walking” — or perhaps that should be sleep-driving — into a shortage of drivers because of an ageing and increasingly unhealthy workforce, putting the health of the economy at risk.

According to the Unite union, the industry’s failure to recruit younger workers means the average age of a large goods vehicle driver has increased from 45.3 years in 2001 to 48 in 2016, with 13 per cent aged over 60 and only 1 per cent under 25.

Unite says the skills shortage is likely to be exacerbated by Brexit as many British haulage firms have become reliant on eastern European drivers. It quotes figures suggesting that between 43,000 and 60,000 of the UK’s 250,000 drivers are from the European Union.

It cites “incredibly high” levels of injury and ill health as a big factor, the main issues being musculoskeletal problems, stress, depression and anxiety. It said research showed that long-haul driving, in particular, was causing unhealthy lifestyles with obesity, high blood pressure, lack of sleep and diabetes all commonplace. Unite said the health problems could be a contributory factor to drivers falling asleep at the wheel. In April, a confidential survey by the union of its heavy goods vehicle drivers found that 29 per cent admitted to having fallen asleep at the wheel.

Adrian Jones, Unite’s national officer, said that to recruit new drivers and retain existing workers the industry needed to have “a long hard look at itself and end the race to the bottom attitude . . . on pay and conditions”.

Unite said the problems were set to increase due to European Union rules that will see maximum driving times increased and minimum rest times cut.

Sally Gilson, from the Freight Transport Association, said: “It’s important for logistics that we reach out and work to attract young people into the sector. We need to show that there are clear career opportunities and long-term prospects in logistics.”

She said there needed to be a change in the way drivers were looked after on the road, where facilities are poor. “A toilet, somewhere to eat, and a safe place to park is a very basic need and even that is difficult to find in some regions,” she said. “To attract young people and take care of the health of our older drivers, facilities need to provide healthy food options, clean toilets and showers, areas where people can socialise, free Wi-Fi and somewhere to exercise.”

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Thousands opt out of pensions after sharp rise in contributions

Thousands of low and moderate earners are opting out of pension saving as they struggle to make ends meet after a sharp increase in deductions from their pay packets was introduced in April.

The underlying opt-out rate has risen from 7.98 per cent to 8.18 per cent in the past two months, according to Now Pensions, the first big auto-enrolling master trust to disclose the impact of the contribution changes.

The increase in employee deductions has been seen as a key test for auto- enrolment — the government’s campaign to “nudge” millions of low earners into pension saving for the first time.

Auto-enrolment is seen as a success, with about nine million people starting to save for the first time since 2012, when it began to be phased in. However, the initial employee contribution was set at only 1 per cent of qualifying earnings, defined today as earnings in excess of £6,032, leading to concern that more people would opt out when the rate was tripled from April.

Now Pensions, an offshoot of the Danish state pension scheme, runs auto-enrolment schemes for 30,000 employers in the UK, most of them small businesses but also a handful of larger ones, such as Fitness First, the gyms group, and Cineworld, the cinemas chain.

The company, which is one of the biggest platforms with 1.75 million saving customers, said that 23,800 people had opted out in the two months since deductions had been raised. That was 1,750 more people than it would have expected if the opt-out rate had remained at the previous year’s level, according to Adrian Boulding, head of policy at Now Pensions.

The opt-out numbers include new recruits to client employers who bale out from the pension scheme in the first six weeks of their employment, as well as existing employees previously enrolled in the scheme who change their minds.

“A small number of people have been deterred by the increase in deductions, but the numbers demonstrate that the vast majority are sticking it out,” Mr Boulding said.

Another test of auto-enrolment comes next April, when the minimum employee contribution is due to rise to 5 per cent. Minimum employer contributions were raised from 1 per cent to 2 per cent in April and will be raised to 3 per cent next April.

The squeeze on real incomes over the past year, as inflation overtook wages growth, was another reason that the increase in deductions could have pushed more low earners to opt out.

Two factors softened the blow for many low-paid employees. One was the 4.4 per cent rise in the national living wage from £7.50 an hour to £7.83 in April. The other was a rise in personal allowances for income tax and national insurance from April.

Separate data yesterday from the Department for Work & Pensions showed that the percentage of eligible employees participating in a workplace pension scheme was 84 per cent last year, up from 77 per cent in 2016. However, the proportion saving most of the time has fallen. The percentage saving in at least three of the past four years fell from 77 per cent to 73 per cent.

There were huge improvements in the participation rate in hotels and restaurants, up from 27 per cent in 2012 to 77 per cent, and in farming and fisheries from 44 per cent in 2016 to 68 per cent.

All employees over the age of 22 have to be enrolled in a workplace scheme of minimum standards and must opt out to avoid having their pay deducted.

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Firms face scrutiny over parental leave

Large companies should be required by law to publish information on their parental leave and maternity pay policies, MPs will say today.

Jo Swinson, the Lib Dem deputy leader, is leading a cross-party push to bring a private member’s bill that would force businesses with 250 or more staff to be transparent about their arrangements.

Nicky Morgan, the former Tory cabinet minister, Harriet Harman, David Lammy and Gareth Thomas from the Labour Party, Caroline Lucas, the Green Party’s co-leader, and Alison Thewliss of the SNP are among the bill’s sponsors. Statutory maternity benefits in the UK are far less generous than in many other European nations. For the first six weeks of leave, women are entitled to 90 per cent of their regular pay, while in the subsequent 33 weeks they are entitled to £145.18 a week.

The government introduced shared parental leave in April 2015, but while 285,000 couples are eligible each year, take-up is estimated to be as low as 2 per cent. The financial implications are thought to be partly to blame because although you can share 37 weeks of pay entitlement (at a maximum of £145.18 a week), fathers are not entitled to six weeks at 90 per cent pay.

Many companies offer more generous packages but fail to publicise their arrangements. Ms Swinson said that forcing big companies to be more transparent would give them an incentive to improve their offer.

She said: “Each year 54,000 women lose their jobs because of pregnancy and maternity discrimination, and men cite concern about negative treatment in the workplace as a significant barrier to taking shared parental leave.

“Asking large companies to publish information about their parental leave and pay policy is a simple, light-touch regulatory change that would have significant benefits. Greater transparency would reduce the risk of discrimination in the recruitment process and encourage employers to improve their parental pay policies.”

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Office dress codes for women may be illegal!

Bosses must not ask women to wear high heels or wear their hair in certain styles, the government has said.

Requirements regarding a woman’s appearance were likely to be unlawful if there was no equivalent requirement for men, the guidance from the Government Equalities Office said. It added that dress codes should not be a source of harassment, such as “women being expected to dress in a provocative manner”.

However, a code requiring all staff to “dress smartly” would be lawful, provided the definition of smart was reasonable, “such as a two-piece suit in a similar colour for both men and women, with low-heeled shoes for both sexes”. The guidance adds that it is likely to be unlawful to require female staff to wear high heels because there is no male equivalent.

Employers are also urged to be “flexible” over religious symbols and not to ban them if they do not interfere with an employee’s work.

Dan Begbie-Clench, a partner at the law firm Doyle Clayton, said that the guide was “common sense” and reflected “recent trends in the courts and society”.

However, Beverley Sunderland, managing director of Crossland Employment Solicitors, said that the advice was too vague, describing it as a “Janet and John” guide.

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Could jobless levels be falling to 1950s level?

Unemployment could be heading down to levels last seen in the 1950s, according to a new analysis of Britain’s jobs market.

The jobless rate has plunged since the financial crisis to a four-decade low of 4.2%. A study by Oxford Economics suggests it could have a lot further to fall, potentially recreating the golden era of the postwar boom.

Martin Beck, a senior economist at the consultancy, said there were “striking parallels” between today and the period when unemployment was less than 3% for two decades. The rate touched an all-time low of 1% in mid-1955, shortly after Anthony Eden succeeded Winston Churchill as prime minister.

Then, as now, pay rose more slowly than productivity, reducing the cost of hiring workers and ensuring a low “equilibrium” rate of unemployment — the level at which there are so few people looking for work that wages begin to rise.

Second World War servicemen were promised jobs when the hostilities ended, and successive governments made full employment a priority. Trade unions were persuaded to exercise pay restraint to ensure everyone who wanted work could find it.

Beck detects a similar dynamic in the lost decade of pay growth since the financial crisis. This time, however, the cause is the decline of unions and the threat of jobs being moved overseas or replaced by robots, he said.

“With globalisation and automation, workers just don’t have as much power to bargain for higher wages,” Beck explained. “If the factors holding back pay were to persist, alongside a catch-up in UK productivity, a return to a 1950s and 1960s-style jobless rate is possible.” With unemployment at its lowest since the mid-1970s, many economists — including members of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee (MPC) — expect wages to pick up. Average pay growth accelerated to 2.8% in February, the first time wages have outstripped inflation in a year.

Beck, however, thinks the similarities with the postwar era suggest the return of pay growth is not a done deal. His findings echo a recent paper co-written by former MPC member David Blanchflower, arguing that the UK is far from full employment. Blanchflower, who left the MPC in 2009, said workers were “frightened” to ask for higher pay.

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Unemployment drop and rise in pay are cause for optimism?

Britain’s employment rate has hit a record high, joblessness is at a 43-year low and wages are rising in real terms for the first time in a year, according to official figures.

With strong job creation, the labour market has been an economic bright spot for years but pay has been weak and the spike in inflation after the Brexit vote affected living standards.

Real earnings started shrinking a year ago, when inflation overtook pay, but the Office for National Statistics says that the trend was reversed in the three months to February. Earnings grew 2.8 per cent while inflation dropped to 2.7 per cent.

Wages are watched closely by economists because consumer spending, one of the key drivers of GDP, is dependent on household finances. The Bank of England is also following pay for signs of inflation before raising interest rates. It is expected to lift them a quarter point to 0.75 per cent next month.

Beyond pay, the broader employment figures provided reason for optimism. The employment rate, which measures the proportion of Britons available for work, hit 75.4 per cent, the highest since records began in 1971 and the third highest among G7 advanced nations. Some 32.26 million Britons have jobs, the highest number ever.

Unemployment fell 16,000 between November and February to 1.42 million, pulling the jobless rate down from 4.3 per cent to 4.2 per cent — its lowest since 1975. Job vacancies remained at roughly 815,000, suggesting that unemployment will continue to fall in the months ahead.

Ian Stewart, the chief economist at Deloitte, said: “For the first time in a year, earnings growth has outstripped inflation. With more people in work than ever, and three quarters of a million unfilled jobs, the stage is set for further rises in earnings through this year.”

Esther McVey, the secretary of state for work and pensions, said: “Another milestone for employment has been reached under this government as employment reaches a record high, up 3.2 million since 2010, the 16th time the employment record has been broken in the same period,” she said.

“That means on average over 1,000 people have moved into work every day since 2010, and credit has to be given to the businesses who have created those jobs and the individuals who are taking those opportunities.”

Philip Hammond, the chancellor, claimed that record employment should help fix the UK’s chronic productivity problem. “We should expect record levels of employment to drive the productivity performance of the UK economy,” he said.

The numbers made an interest rate rise almost certain. “A lot of the detail in the report suggests the labour market is still tightening,” Philip Shaw, an economist with Investec, the banking group, said. “There’s nothing within the numbers to prevent the Bank from raising interest rates in May,” he said.

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