How fitting that the ONS (Office for National Statistics) should bolster its latest findings on the future of automation in the work place with a helpful robot that, having established your occupation, will inform you of your risk of redundancy.
Automation has long been the hot topic but more often than not it is a precursor to discussions of driver-less transport rather than of its impact on the labour market. It is however something that all business should be considering, planning for and discussing openly with their employees.
The blueprint for the majority of these studies came in 2013 when two American academics, Frey and Osbourne, along with artificial intelligence experts, assigned scores to tasks they felt could or could not be substituted by machines in the near future. Factors such as perception, manipulation, creativity and social intelligence were valued as more digitally-resistant. No surprises then that, according to the recent ONS study, those with the highest risk of automation are low-skilled jobs such as waiters, shelf fillers, elementary sales occupations and bar staff. At the other end of the scale, with apparently little to worry about, are the medical practitioners and higher education teachers. It would appear then that, firstly, the better trained and educated you are, the lower the risks of automation, and secondly, that women, young people and part-timers are the most at risk.
In their assessment of people in jobs that carry the highest risk of automation, the ONS found that women account for close to 71% of the employees in those roles. Similarly, employees with lower education than GCSEs made up 59.8% of the jobs at high risk of automation. This is of course worrying from a diversity standpoint.
The ONS stresses that “it’s not so much that robots are taking over, but that routine and repetitive tasks can be carried out more quickly and efficiently by an algorithm written by a human, or a machine designed for one specific function”. By way of example, Amazon introduced more than 50,000 new robots into its warehouses 2017, this is a 100% increase on the year before, a quite astonishing video of how they move around the warehouse can be seen below. And whilst the ONS reports that there are 0.7% fewer jobs at high risk than there were in 2011, this is more than likely due to the abundance of automation that is already common place. Self-checkouts are now a common sight, along with automated passport control at airports, chat-bots on websites, and systems that organise the vast storage areas owned by Amazon or Ocado.
To assume that those with complicated jobs, i.e medical professionals, are all but safe would be a precipitate assumption. More and more complicated tasks are being broken down into simple steps capable of being completed “by a machine that needs no training, holidays, tea breaks or sick leave” writes the BBC’s business correspondent. Of course, the importance of interhuman interaction should not be overlooked, with many in the service industry placing higher value on people skills than practical skills. For example, high quality waiting and bar staff can be invaluable to a restaurant. Ultimately it will be up to “the policymakers and business leaders”, states the associate professor of organisation at Warwick Business School. As usual, preparation and dialogue are the orders of the day.
29th March 2019