There has been extensive reporting recently about the decrease in the global birth rate, and the question of how to fill the gap between a larger, but aging workforce and a smaller younger generation. Some countries and private businesses have been looking at how artificial intelligence (AI) could bridge this gap, but how worried should people be about whether or not they will be replaced by AI in the workplace?
The status of automation in the workplace
We have already seen the rise of automation in the car manufacturing industry, farming and recently self-checks at supermarkets, all of which have led to people who had been employed in those industries losing their jobs. Despite this, many will argue that production rates have increased, material usage is more efficient, workplace safety improved, and ultimately it has led to a reduction in cost and consumer prices. There are also predictions that new, and sometimes unexpected, types of jobs will be born from the rise of technology, as we have seen with computer programmers (in their many different forms) after the invention of the modern computer.
According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), 1.5 million jobs in England are at “high risk” of becoming automated in the future. This would involve replacing these existing roles with computer programs, algorithms, or even robots. The ONS believes that the occupations with the highest risk for automation are “waiters/waitresses, shelf fillers and elementary sales occupations, all of which are low skilled or routine”. Occupations with a low risk of automation are “medical practitioners, higher education teaching professionals, and senior professionals of educational establishments”, which are considered highly skilled. The ONS analysis reveals, as you would expect, that the more an industry requires highly skilled workers, the less likely overall automation of their roles will be.
Source: The probability of automation by job type in England 2011 and 2017.
Some recent examples of automation include:
- During the lockdown, Starship Technologies delivered food to almost 200,000 residents in Milton Keynes using a cooler-sized, six wheeled robot. This proved useful in reducing the possibility of spreading Covid-19, as there was not a need for a human driver or delivery person.
- Online grocery delivery company Ocado was struggling to meet unprecedented demand, due to the surge in online orders. To address this, they heavily utilised their 563,000 square feet automated warehouse. This was beneficial for Ocado as a business, due to the improvements in accuracy and the cutting of waste in the packing and delivery process, and less need for contact with others to stop the spread of Covid-19.
In the above situations no job losses were reported, but if companies within a similar industry, and with a human-lead workforce, decided to implement similar proposals, then it is likely there could be some redundancies. If redundancies are a necessary step, there are ways for an employer to achieve this in an ethical manner and maintain a people-first approach.
The TUC created a manifesto about the ‘Dignity at Work and the AI Revolution’. They agree that AI boosts productivity and offers an opportunity to improve working lives. However, they say that, if left unchecked, it could increase the risk of inequality, discrimination and unsafe working conditions. They strongly believe that “technology at work is for the benefit of everyone” and that importance should be placed on the “human agency in the face of technological control”.
Amongst other suggestions, the manifesto proposes:
- Implementing a statutory duty to consult trade unions before employers deploy high-risk AI (AI with the ability to decide on the employment relationship) in the workplace.
- An amendment to the UK’s data protection to make it unlawful to have discriminatory data processes.
- A data reciprocity between employers and workers to redress the imbalance of power over data at work.
What could be done?
As an individual, the focus should be on honing the necessary skills for the future job market. We look at some suggestions, below:
Up to date skills: it is important to have a workforce that has up-to-date relevant skills for their job or industry. It is best to stay on top of the ever-evolving technological changes of the industry and see how it can be utilised in the workplace. For example, a nursing home that currently keeps paper medication administration records, could install a computerised version such as oneMar.
Diversify: variety is the spice of life, so a workforce that has a diversity of skills/qualifications will always be something positive. Advantage can be taken of the free online courses provided by institutions such as the Open University or from The Skills Toolkit, an initiative launched by the UK government in 2020. For example, on a construction site, multiple workers are not only qualified electricians but are also qualified plumbers.
Offer of training: employers could offer their workforce the ability to retrain in new capacities. This could be in the form of offering flexible working hours, so individuals can fit in the ability to train, or offer their employees upskilling opportunities. PwC announced a $3 billion investment in job training for all employees in 2019, which included a “digital fitness” app that helps identify digital trends and adapt ways of working and learning.
If you have any questions about redundancy or other forms of dismissals surrounding an employees’ rights and the obligations of an employer, contact our employment solicitors on 0808 252 5231 and we will be happy to help.
The author is this blog is Xania Scarlett, a legal assistant in the Employment Team.