on November 11th, 2014

Dear Colleagues,

Ten million British jobs could be taken over by computers and robots over the next 20 years, wiping out more than one in three roles. Thus says The Telegraph newspaper. Naturally, using the usual inflammatory rhetoric to excite comment.

One can clearly see low-paid repetitive jobs disappearing at a rapid lick. According to this article, jobs for those earning less than £30,000 are at higher risk of being automated by machines or software. Some figures put the job losses as high as 35% of jobs.

In the past, it has been said that mechanization (or automation) actually created jobs. Examples are mechanization of agriculture results in fewer jobs on the farm but this is more than offset with more jobs working in manufacturing agricultural machinery - thus resulting in a huge lift in productivity. So - no net job loss. However, because of the widespread and rapid increase in automation and application of software, this positive picture of job creation is unlikely today.

As you would imagine, jobs which are highly creative, critical and require a high level of thinking are unlikely to be automated. For example, a brain surgeon is not going to lose their job because of a computer program or robot – however a medium paid clerk in a construction facility filling in forms and filing documents all day is likely to find their job disappearing.

Whether you are a plumber, electrician, plant operator or chief engineer, this rapid change to jobs will impact on you.

Jobs Going, Going Gone
Mid-level and semi-skilled jobs are likely to continue to disappear. This includes such jobs as those requiring repetitive processing. Typical examples of jobs at risk include clerical work and support services in such areas as administration and sales, in industries ranging from finance, transport, manufacturing, mining, energy, water, construction etc.

As you would know - typical jobs which have evaporated in the past decade include secretaries, accounts and filing clerks, sales and travel agents, librarians, finance and insurance clerks and credit controllers.

Over the past two decades, for example - Britain has created 2.3m more jobs in high skilled technology areas against a reduction of 1.2m job in the middle-paid area. Paradoxically at the bottom of the pay scale another 2m jobs have been created – inevitably with poor salaries, conditions and job satisfaction (do you want to flip burgers for the rest of your life?). Interestingly, 22% of British jobs require the academic educational attainment of a 11-year old. Hardly the recipe for a satisfying well-paid job immune to automation.
In our engineering environment, jobs which changed or disappeared include such areas as clerical processing, administration, drafting, manufacturing, costing, maintenance and plant operations. One can see in a process or manufacturing plant, even such critical jobs as electricians, fitters and engineers are considerably fewer than they were a decade ago.

And don’t think that working in an IT environment makes your job secure. We all know what happened to many web design jobs (tweaking html pages). Much of this work of coding and laying out web pages has been automated (with software).

Abilities Required Today
Employers today are after people who are digitally savvy, able to manage others, show significant creativity and problem solving ability and are entrepreneurial in their thinking. They must also be able to handle an ambiguous and rapid changing environment. These skills are difficult for any computer to replicate.

The emphasis throughout the world is still on achieving a university style classical education as against that of doing an apprenticeship or more technically aligned career. This needs to change to a focus on where the jobs are. There also needs to be a dramatic increase in employee-owned businesses. The percentage of employee owned businesses is generally tiny by comparison with larger businesses.

Jobs which are Secure
The safest jobs are in engineering and computing. And perhaps applied science. People are needed to develop, apply and maintain technologies replacing humans.

How Do you Stay Employed?
Examine your job and identify whether a computer program can automate it. If it is highly skilled requiring considerable creativity it is an unlikely candidate for automation. However, if it is a repetitive one such as form filling or repetitive in nature, it would be easy to replace. Generally, if you work in a highly skilled engineering or technology role you will find that your job is unlikely to be automated quickly.

Keep in touch with the work environment and watch new jobs being created and re-skill for these if you are unsure where yours is heading – either formally through courses or informally through on-the-job training.

Thanks to the UK Government Commission For Employment and Skills (quoted in The Daily Telegraph) for those interesting statistics quoted above.

In considering the rapid technological change going on around us, Michael Fry and T. Lewis’ comment is so true: The more things change, the more they remain... insane.

Yours in engineering learning,


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