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Employment: Automation

Volume 797: debated on Monday 1 April 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the analysis by the Office for National Statistics, published on 25 March, that nearly 1.5 million jobs may be at risk of being lost to automation and that those most at risk are female workers.

My Lords, the work of the ONS demonstrates the significant transitional challenge posed by automation but overlooks the considerable opportunity for the creation of new, highly skilled employment opportunities. The industrial strategy sets out the Government’s vision to make the UK a global centre for AI and data innovation, alongside measures to ensure our people are equipped to capitalise on those opportunities.

I thank the Minister for his Answer, which looks at the benefits—and there certainly are benefits from automation—but there are also risks, not only in gender terms but also in geographic terms. In addition to the study that came out last week, the Centre for Cities last year issued a study highlighting that those economies in the United Kingdom which are already weakest will be the ones whose jobs are most at risk. Therefore, I repeat the Question with a geographical bent. What in the industrial strategy and what in the Government’s plans is focusing specifically on the danger to further diversity and on the danger of putting further issues on to our weakest economies?

My Lords, I am glad that the noble Lord recognises that there are very positive sides to developments in this field. As he will know, the World Economic Forum estimates that, although there might be some 75 million jobs lost globally as a result of change of this sort, another 133 million could be created. However, the noble Lord is right to point out that there will be disadvantages for people, particularly for those who are low-skilled and particularly—he mentioned the gender point—for women. Therefore, as the industrial strategy makes clear, it is very important that we look to retraining. I refer the noble Lord to large parts of the industrial strategy that point in the direction of retraining and upskilling our workforce as much as possible.

My Lords, can my noble friend tell us what happened to all the women who were employed as secretaries and personal assistants when the introduction of the word processor made them all redundant?

My Lords, my noble friend is quite right: they found new jobs, better jobs, more highly skilled jobs and, probably, more interesting jobs.

My Lords, the Government have quite rightly tried to deal with the issue of skills training in the UK, but it is quite clear that the FE colleges have been starved of resources for the last few years. What are the Government going to do to put that money back into the FE sector so that it can provide the skills that we need?

My Lords, I could go on at length about what the Government are doing in terms of funding for new training, starting with the £506 million we have offered for maths, digital and technical education including, and including the £100 million we have committed to the first stage of developing the national retraining schemes to support people vulnerable to technological change. With the seven minutes I have, I will leave it there. There is a great deal going on. That is what the industrial strategy is all about.

My Lords, predictions of worklessness as a result of innovation have been coming round monotonously decade after decade—since at least the days of Ned Ludd—and have been proved wrong again and again. In fact, it is evident that innovation produces more and better jobs over the long run. Is it possible that the current alarm is because, for the first time, artificial intelligence is affecting the jobs of doctors, lawyers and people like us? Does my noble friend agree that the way to deal with this problem is to encourage people to retrain as easily as possible to take advantage of new opportunities in the new economy?

My noble friend is an optimist, as the House will be aware. He is a rational optimist—if I may give a little plug for his book—but he is quite right to mention that there have always been worries that, with each new wave of automation, jobs will be lost. As my noble friend has said, what has happened is that, with each new wave of automation, we have seen jobs go but it is the boring, repetitive jobs that have disappeared to be replaced by machines. It might be that, as he points out, some of the boring, repetitive jobs that solicitors do, such as conveyancing, can be more easily done by machine.

My Lords, only 19% of the digital technology workforce is female, as are only 15% of computing graduates and only 17% of fintech founders. In an age where automation will become dominant, is it not time that the Government abandoned relying on these sorts of piecemeal, scattered or small-scale initiatives to increase diversity and launched a holistic, well-resourced and high-profile strategy, along the lines of the anti-smoking campaign, to challenge everything from unconscious bias to the lack of training and role models, and to de-risk change generally?

My Lords, I do not quite take the almost semi-Stalinist approach that the noble Baroness is putting forward. What I am saying is that society will change as a result of these things but the Government must also recognise that it is going to change. That is what the industrial strategy is all about, and we will go along with that.

My Lords, it is all very well to be optimistic, and even to be rationally optimistic, but however boring some jobs may be to those who have better and more highly paid ones, those jobs also pay wages which keep people out of poverty and ensure that families are supported. These are serious issues; we are talking about 1.5 million people losing their jobs and likely to be affected. I hope that the Government have more than some forward thinking about where they might find educational support for these people. In a practical sense, however, is it not possible that this sort of challenge—a big challenge for society as a whole—should be referred to those experts who are able to give us advice on where to go? Will the Minister suggest that this be a central issue in the work of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, which has just been established?

My Lords, the point I was making is that it is not just government that will lead on changes here but the employers themselves. If we take some of those boring jobs, such as checking out at a supermarket, many of those are being replaced by the self-checkout mechanism. That allows the employers, as is happening in supermarkets, warehousing and elsewhere, to shift employees to more interesting jobs.