Workers don’t need to panic about the impact of artificial intelligence (AI), big data, and the Internet of Things (IoT) on jobs–but they do need to plan, according to a report from the Trades Union Congress (TUC), which represents more than 5.6 million workers in 50 unions across the UK.
“New technologies could bring massive benefits to aspects of our lives as varied as medical diagnostics and the fight against climate change,” the report stated. “But at present, digital technologies are causing a degree of fear among the working population, with many people asking the simple question: is a robot about to take my job?”
In the past, new technologies resulted in more jobs, not fewer. The UK’s employment rate is currently at a record high, despite widespread technological change in the past 30 years. However, the new jobs created have required different skillsets. For example, in 1950, almost one in three workers worked in manufacturing while one in 12 worked in professional and technical services. By 2016, those numbers had reversed, the report noted.
A widely-cited study from the University of Oxford predicted that 47% of US jobs are at high risk of automation in the coming decades, with the lowest skill jobs most likely to be eliminated. However, it’s also likely that these jobs could be replaced by new occupations and professions, rather than completely disappear, the report stated.
Previous waves of technological change, especially those beginning in the 1970s, along with trends such as globalization and the decline of union coverage across many nations, did disrupt many industries. TUC recommends the UK focus on the following three areas to best take advantage of the benefits offered by technology, and mitigate the employment risks:
1. Taking advantage of the potential of new technologies
Nations can use new technology to enhance productivity, jobs, and wages, particularly in the areas which previous waves of industrial change have left behind, the report stated. Moving toward a digital economy requires a partnership approach, in which workers, businesses, and citizens work together to shape the direction of policies. Further, to fully take advantage of new opportunities offered by technology, a more diverse workforce is needed, as studies show that more diverse workforces perform better, the report noted.
2. Protecting workers and communities whose jobs are most at risk of change
Workers with higher skillsets have been the primary beneficiaries of technological change, the report noted, and this pattern will likely continue. To ensure that all workers can remain employed, governments should invest in more adult education, and targeted retraining programs aimed at those facing redundancy due to technological changes.
3. Sharing the rewards of increased productivity
PwC estimated that the UK GDP will rise 10% in 2030 as a result of AI, the report noted. The key challenge in dealing with the new wave of technological change is to ensure that if these benefits arrive, they are fairly shared among the population, the report noted. Advocates of a Universal Basic Income have suggested that this could occur through a tax on robots.