Automation is already reshaping industries beyond all measure as we move deeper into the machine age, and not just in manufacturing. One area of automation gathering pace is AI, with Europe leading the way. The replacement of human workers by robots, however, has been a contentious subject across a broad range of industries and service sectors, as artificial intelligence (AI) breakthroughs continue to gather pace. While many take a “doom and gloom” approach to these advances, my view is that new technology such as AI, robotics and processes such as automation should be embraced, not feared.
According to a 2016 World Economic Forum survey, an estimated 1.6 million manufacturing and production jobs will be replaced globally due to automation between 2015 and 2020. If deployed correctly, AI has already been proven to boost productivity, create new employment opportunities for digital skills, and enable human talent to flourish.
The recent report from consultancy firm PwC went one-step further. It found that 30% of jobs in Britain (served by more than 10 million workers) are likely to become automated within the next 15 years. We should treat this as an opportunity to establish a nationwide transformation programme to re-skill and up-skill existing workers and create new training and apprenticeship schemes.
So my view is that the debate shouldn’t be on whether we embrace this next wave of machines: it is an inevitable industrial revolution coming just as the steam engine, the automobile and mass production assembly line, and client-server computing did before it. The question will be how we prepare the workforce for its arrival. Businesses must now equip their staff with the digital tools and expertise they need to keep pace with these technological advances. Employees are looking to their employers to demonstrate responsible and responsive leadership.
With the fourth major industrial revolution (4IR) well under way, it is critical that companies provide employees with the support they need to navigate any new digital responsibilities in the workplace. The key to achieving skills for the new business era is for employers to invest in transformation programmes that offer workers exciting and engaging digital experiences.
A digital workplace can improve employee focus and boost productivity by establishing new leadership targets and methods of measuring employee performance. Team collaboration tools are a great example: by merely simplifying communication and digital processes with new chat-based tools, we can use this technology to improve workplace productivity.
However, BMC’s own research found that many UK workers don’t feel as though they are capable of keeping pace with the speed of technological change affecting today’s economy. Almost half of all respondents we surveyed (40%) said they were concerned that they did not possess the skills necessary for the workplace of the future. AI has now rushed in to fill the void left by humans’ lack of digital skills, leaving employees’ positions increasingly exposed to replacement. Businesses need to do more to rectify this.
At present, according to the Government’s Science and Technology Committee, the UK is experiencing a digital skills crisis. This issue is not just rooted in manufacturing and service-related jobs however, as white collar and professional services jobs are vulnerable to replacement by automation too. Widespread action is needed across the UK economy to address the risks emanating from this digital deficit that threatens to deplete both our national productivity and competitiveness.
With this in mind, the government must tailor its digital strategy to remedy the fact that 12.6 million adults in the UK lack basic digital skills. Given that 90% of jobs now require digital skills to some degree and the skills gap is costing the economy around £63bn a year in lost income according to the Committee’s Digital skills crisis report, this is particularly pressing.
UK businesses must treat this digital skills deficit and the new wave of machines as a clear call to action to invest more in and provide better training for digital skills at all levels of education. By focusing on providing employees with the relevant digital skills this will both guard against job losses and strengthen workers’ digital skills for success in jobs of the future.
Innovation and the productivity gains of automation should be welcomed, not feared. It is the human race’s desire to innovate that has compelled us to strive to better the advances made by previous generations. This wave of automation is no different. Let’s face it head on and seize the opportunities to better ourselves too.
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