Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Facing the future of work

Investment in digital skills is vital to ensure we are prepared for the fourth industrial revolution, writes Luke Heselwood

Work is always changing, for better and for worse. As handloom weavers gave way to machines, and the typewriter was replaced by the computer, work changed, becoming more productive, innovative and complex. New technology promises further change, and how this is managed during the fourth industrial revolution is crucial to spread the benefits of the digital age.

The precise path of these trends is hard to predict, but that technology will disrupt work. It will likely replace some jobs, change many and create others. Last week, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development argued that 14 per cent of jobs in rich countries are ‘highly automatable’.  Some of those at highest risk include accountants, telemarketers and loan officers, adding to manual roles that have long since been earmarked for replacement.

For many jobs, new technologies will change the day-to-day activities of workers, rather than replace them altogether. Introduce ATMs, people predicted, and bank tellers would become redundant. Instead roles changed, with employees focusing on sales and customer service.

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Elsewhere, jobs will be created. Who could have dreamed up an ‘Instagram marketing expert’ before the dawn of the internet? One recent report identifies 21 potential job roles which could be created between now and 2028, including a personal data broker, cyber city analyst and AI-assisted healthcare technician.

These are exciting times for the cyber city analysts of tomorrow, but policymakers should work to ensure that all benefit from disruption. A recent report from Future Advocacy concluded that jobs in the Midlands, north of England and Scotland are at highest risk of automation. This is in part because of regional variations of the workforce. Four times the proportion of workers in the east Midlands work in production than do in London. Different approaches to changes in the workplace are needed across the country.

Local leadership can empower regions to create targeted policies that meet local needs – a key policy of the Future of Work commission’s report, launched by Tom Watson in December 2017. In Greater Manchester, Labour mayor Andy Burnham has released a strategy to create a digital ecosystem that uses new technology to support local growth, accelerating market investment in full fibre networks and expanding wifi to all town centres across Greater Manchester.

Education is key to making the future workforce more resilient to changes in the job market. One secondary school in Wales is using new technologies such as electronic tables to give students more autonomy over learning, progress and digital skills. All pupils should have basic digital skills, but schools can go further to prioritise the skills some pupils may need to move seamlessly into local employment. Artificially intelligent apps such as ‘Century’ can help with this by tailoring learning to pupils.

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A focus on digital skills should go hand in hand with a greater emphasis on social, emotional and cognitive skills that are less susceptible to automation. Tristram Hunt, former Labour shadow education secretary, recently told students: ‘As you think about your futures, the best way to immunise yourself against the robots is to nail your maths and English and all things you have to do, but also you’ve got to think about creativity, design and innovation.’ A recent report from Nesta also made the case for the education system to give more attention to developing collaboration and problem-solving skills in an effort to prepare future workers to technological changes.

Re-skilling and a culture of continuous learning would help workers transition into new roles. Institutions like the Open University are vital to this, allowing workers to retrain for new careers part-time. Apprenticeships are a focus of government and local businesses should look at how they can spend funding from the new levy on digital upskilling to match the needs of changing local labour markets.

As work changes, policymakers need to respond to ensure that all benefit. As automation affects different regions differently, targeted approaches from local leaders and public services are crucial. Innovative leaders are grappling with this in pockets; it is high time these approaches were spread across the country.

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Luke Heselwood is a researcher at Reform. He tweets @LukeHeselwood 

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Luke Heselwood

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