Fear of technology taking our jobs runs deep. As long ago as 1589, Elizabeth I denied a patent to a newfangled knitting machine, saying: “Consider thou what the invention could do to my poor subjects. It would assuredly bring to them ruin by depriving them of employment, thus making them beggars.”
The threat today is from artificial intelligence, the technology allowing robots and computers to take on sophisticated tasks in fields including law and accounting. Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, has warned of a “hollowing out of many middle-class services jobs through machine learning and global sourcing”, putting 15 million Britons out of work. “Alongside its great benefits, every technological revolution mercilessly destroys jobs and livelihoods . . . well before the new ones emerge,” he added.
It’s a scary picture, brought home by the announcement from Capita, the outsourcing company, that 2,000 of its staff are to lose their jobs and be replaced by robots. These workers will gain little comfort from economists who say that trends suggest that more jobs will be created in the sophisticated economy than are lost to machines.
While technology contributed to the loss of about 800,000 lower-skilled jobs between 2001 and 2015, it helped to create 3.5 million higher-skilled jobs in their place, according to Deloitte. Each of these paid £10,000 more per year than the jobs lost, adding £140 billion to the economy through increased wages. Many men who have lost jobs in manufacturing have moved into project management, and women who lost secretarial jobs moved into social care, the company says.
Angus Knowles-Cutler, vice-chairman of Deloitte, is optimistic that this trend will continue.
As examples of the direction of things, the Amazon Go grocery store doesn’t have checkouts or cashiers but does employ chefs to make sandwiches and salads. A care home might employ robots to lift patients but could invest the money saved to recruit specialists to cut their hair or perform physiotherapy.
Some jobs, however, are more at risk than others.
Admin and call centres
The number of personal assistant and secretarial jobs has halved since the start of the millennium and those left are at high risk from automation, according to analysts. The most skilled assistants will survive because chief executives will still want human expertise but more middle managers will make do with machines.
More than a million people work in call centres and they’re often in areas that suffered big job losses from industrial decline. These jobs are now at risk from robotic systems that can answer questions and deal with everyday issues, but Mr Knowles-Cutler said that many workers were likely to be kept on to deal with more complex customer-service problems.
Factory workers who have gone through decades of insecurity as a result of automation and overseas competition will be hit by more of the same. “Lights-out” automated factories overseen by a handful of technicians are the norm in parts of Asia. Sixteen per cent of UK companies plan to buy fully autonomous production-line robots in the next five years and more are investing in semi-autonomous technology. There should be some respite for workers, however, because of a skills shortage.
Amazon has unveiled a store in Seattle where customers walk in, take what they want from the shelves and walk out. Sensors monitor their purchases and bill their online account. Although self-checkouts have already done away with some cashiers’ jobs, this goes to another level, and analysts say that roles such as shelf-stackers will go too. New roles will include shop-floor “greeters” and more staff making fresh food.
In the longer run, some believe that most bricks and mortar stores will become obsolete as drone deliveries make e-shopping even easier.
If driverless cars and lorries become standard in the next ten years, many driving jobs would be lost. Haulage companies are sceptical, however, with many saying that fully automated lorries are more suited to the long, relatively empty roads of the US and Australia than Britain’s congested motorways.
Automated milking machines have been common since the 1990s and the next generation of technology could enable arable crops to be monitored and harvested using autonomous tractors and combine harvesters. Staff at Harper Adams University in Shropshire are working on farming cereal crops without setting foot in the field, and technology start-ups are working hard to automate fruit-picking. This will mean job losses for some labourers and seasonal workers. Optimists believe that some of those who are displaced will move into new roles as farms diversify, processing produce for a farm café or shop.
Almost 40 per cent of legal jobs are at risk from automation, Deloitte says, with machines able to tackle many clerical tasks, and firms are investing in artificial-intelligence technology. Intelligent searches can already outperform junior lawyers in reviewing documents and selecting the most relevant for a case. Low-level tasks can also be outsourced to countries such as India.
Since 2001, technology has contributed to the loss of 31,000 jobs in the profession but there has been an overall increase of about 80,000, most of which are higher-skilled, better-paid jobs such as barristers and solicitors. The big losers have been secretaries and paralegals, and some firms have cut training contracts. finance Two thirds of staff in “branch-heavy” retail banks do jobs that could be automated, Citi forecasts. The extent to which machines have taken over was demonstrated in October when automated trading systems were blamed for the flash crash in the value of the pound.
In accountancy, machines can read company documents to flag anomalies for accountants to focus on. It’s debatable whether the total number of workers in financial services will fall, because the quantity of financial data will keep accountancy companies busy.
Staffing still accounts for half of the operating costs of big hotel chains and the industry is constantly looking for efficiencies, so check-in kiosks and gadgets making guests coffee will proliferate. However, bosses stress that the strength of the industry can be maintained only with human skills. Companies in Japan have already ditched robot waiters.
The industry says it’s short-staffed in any case.
Health and social care
Deloitte’s research has found that 1.35 million jobs — 28 per cent of the workforce — have a high chance of being automated in the next 20 years. However, almost half (2.25 million) are at low risk, meaning that this has the highest number of “safe” jobs of all sectors.
Care work remains the fastest-growing occupation and experts agree that robots won’t have the skills and qualities to look after people properly. They will, however, be getting involved. Care homes near the University of Lincoln have tested robot assistants that monitor residents round the clock, giving an extra layer of supervision. In Japan “robears” have helped residents to stand up or lifted them from bed into wheelchairs, sparing workers’ backs.
The biggest technology companies haven’t employed that many people but those in tech roles across different sectors are extremely well placed. We will need workers to make and maintain all those new robots and artificial intelligence systems. In terms of IT, employers put digital skills at the top of their list of requirements, ahead of management skills — and the threat from cyberattacks means that security will be a growth industry.
Technology can’t replicate the human creativity needed in architecture, advertising and graphic design, although it can cut the amount of “grunt work” needed.
Nigel Gwilliam, of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, said: “Many aspects of advertising are already technology-dependent and would actually benefit from further automation. In many respects we have too much data, too much media and too many options for people to handle on their own. As well as copywriters, we now employ data scientists.”
This is the safest sector. The country will need lots of well-educated people to fill higher-level roles, economists forecast, and no one believes robots can take the place of teachers and lecturers, even if automated online courses can supplement personalised tuition. However, no one noticed when a robot replaced a teaching assistant at one US university this year and answered students’ questions.