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Future proofing skills and employment

JimKnight.jpgJim Knight on creating the policy infrastructure to prepare the UK for major changes in the world of work

Everyday throws up another report on the future of work and alarmist headlines that ‘Robots Will Bring About the End of Work’. What is the reality? Should Parliament be worried? Is Brexit and the ending of the Social Chapter of employment protections an opportunity to replace them with something fit for the digital age? 

I was recently in a session at a global education conference debating whether in 2030 there will be more or fewer truck drivers, lift technicians, marketing executives and teachers. (I predicted more of all except the truck drivers.)  For the last year I have served on the Future of Work Commission, established by Labour’s deputy leader and DCMS lead Tom Watson. Next week I will lead a debate in the Lords to try and deal with some of these critical questions.

Work is what defines most of us. Meet someone for the first time and it is likely that the “what do you do?” question will quickly be asked. But work is also vital for self-esteem and mental health, and a sense that you make a valued contribution to society and the economy. So when Andy Haldane, Chief Economist at the Bank of England, states that roughly half of jobs in this country are under threat from technology we should take it seriously for social as well as economic reasons.

For many businesses, it will be logical to invest in machines to improve productivity, even if that is at the expense of jobs. Whilst few whole jobs will be done by machines, tasks within jobs are very likely to be replaced. If those decisions mean fewer net jobs and those logical decisions are aggregated up, it would create a significant displacement of work – resulting in less consumer spending and consequent economic decline. And that of course, means lower tax returns and higher welfare costs, reducing the public sector’s ability to respond to such decline.

With the macro reasons for Parliament to be engaged so compelling, we need therefore to consider our resilience from this threat.

Recent work by PwC identified different potential options. These range from a corporate-led world where jobs shrink as a few get very powerful and people are potentially paid not to work; or an innovation-led world subject to their being enough nimble and adaptive talent; or a green world with an emphasis on corporate social responsibility and attracting talent by connecting with purpose; or a world where humans come first and people work in much smaller artisanal occupations.

The reality is likely to be a mix of all of these options, but how it is balanced will be partly down to public policy choices.

Last week, Nesta, Pearson and the Oxford Study Group published their Future Skills research. They take a wider view by showing the dynamic links between technological change, globalisation, urbanisation, wealth inequalities, climate change, political uncertainty and demographic change. The combination of these means many people are more fearful of the future than hopeful – an issue at the heart of the political divisions in many advanced countries around the world.

For most individuals, resilience from uncertainty lies in flexibility and a core capability of learning. Through longer working lives we will need to be able to cycle through multiple careers through access to a dynamic adult skills system that is affordable and in tune with labour market demand. Politicians need to have a vision of how to provide that infrastructure.

Children starting school this term may still be working at the turn of century. Will they be equipped at school with the human character skills needed to keep re-inventing themselves? Governments need to assure parents that the curriculum and assessment system is developing the whole child, not just the cognitive capability needed to pass exams to get into university.

Students will want to know that taking on large amounts of debt to go to university will give a return on investment in this uncertain labour market. Employers are already starting to use artificial intelligence and gaming technology in recruitment, rather than using qualifications as a proxy for skills and knowledge.  Policy makers will have to respond to protect higher education research if degree apprenticeships are successful and result in many more choosing to earn as they learn rather than go to university.

There are many other wider reasons to debate this. Would more connectivity investment allow us to reduce pressure on cities and revitalise market towns? What is the new economics that will make the nature of work in care and environmental restoration sufficiently attractive to meet demand and raise the quality of service? And, of course, how can artificial intelligence enhance parliamentarians?

Perhaps we should just be replaced by know-it-all robots capable of assimilating real time mass feedback from the public? And if that sounds like something out of Blade Runner, we also know that politics – where our current Prime Minister gets labelled “The Maybot” by people on her own side – can often seem stranger than science fiction.

Lord Jim Knight of Weymouth is a Labour Peer and a former Education Minister. He tweets @LordJimKnight

Published 4th October 2017

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