Automation and the Workforce

Press reports suggest that jobs could be at risk as automation technologies are deployed. What might be automated, how might it affect the UK and when?

Developments in robotics and autonomous systems (RAS) are making it possible to automate activities that previously could only be done by humans, and to assist workers with tasks that cannot be automated. This may bring sizeable economic benefits. The May Government stated that RAS has the potential to increase economic output by 15% (£218 billion), and invested approximately £170 million in RAS between 2012 and 2016.

What work is being automated?

RAS are physical and software systems that can perceive their environment, control their actions, reason and adapt. They have the potential to cut costs and increase productivity, and are used across the UK economy to automate both physical and knowledge-based work.

For example:

Autonomous vehicles – Nissan began testing a driverless car on roads in London in 2017.

Automated warehouses – online supermarket Ocado is trialling warehouses where robots pack and move goods autonomously.

Robotic process automation software – Enfield Council is training “Amelia” to handle basic customer service queries.

E-discovery software – some law firms use software to automate the task of searching through documents that may be relevant to a case.

The pace of adoption will depend on factors such as technology and labour costs, awareness of the technology, public perception, and regulation. The UK lags behind in the adoption of some RAS. In 2015, the UK had 33 robots installed per 10,000 employees (across all industries, excluding automotive), compared to 170 for Germany and 93 for the US. The Resolution Foundation think-tank has suggested that while the impact of Brexit will take time to unfold, a scenario in which migration restrictions lead to increased labour costs may increase employers’ incentives to invest in RAS.

How will automation affect jobs?

Historically, technology has displaced human workers in specific tasks. Although this has not led to mass unemployment in the long-term, it has altered the type of jobs available. It is unclear whether RAS will affect jobs differently. The available evidence is limited. Predictions range from 10% to 35% of current UK jobs having a high chance of automation in the coming decades (see box). None of these consider any new jobs that might be created. In addition, predicting the impact of automation is difficult because of uncertainties in the rates of technological development and adoption, as well as other factors that may affect employment, such as changes to the wider economy.

Studies have predicted:

  • 35% of UK jobs in 2013 had a greater than 66% chance of being automated over the next 10 to 20 years (Frey and Osborne, 2014).
  • For 10% of UK jobs, it would be technically possible to automate over 70% of their component tasks within the next decade (Arntz et al., 2016).
  • Up to 30% of UK jobs have a 70% or greater chance of being automated by the early 2030s, compared to the US (38%), Germany (35%) and Japan (21%). This may be due in part to differences between jobs in different countries. For example, 60% of tasks in construction sector jobs in Germany are manual or routine, compared to 48% in the UK, where more time is spent planning and consulting (PWC, 2017).

These studies used different methodologies to look at the technical (not economic) feasibility of automation. There are differences, for example, in the level of detail at which individual job tasks were reviewed.

 What types of jobs could be affected?

Research suggests that the UK sectors particularly likely to be affected by automation are wholesale and retail trade, manufacturing, administration, transport and storage (see chart below). While views vary on which skills will be most difficult to automate, those commonly highlighted include social skills, creativity, digital skills and moving and working in unpredictable environments. Jobs requiring a greater level of education may also be less likely to be automated. The Commons Science and Technology Committee has said that Government should “ensure that our education and training systems … can adapt … and are geared up for lifelong learning.”

This article is part of Key Issues 2017 – a series of briefings on the topics that will take centre stage in UK and international politics in the new Parliament. More Key Issues posts will be published on this blog throughout June, subscribe via the homepage to get instant alerts.

Picture credit: aaaf17-016 by Untitled exhibitions; Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)