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It mostly covers my work as UNISON Scotland's Head of Policy and Public Affairs although views are my own. For full coverage of UNISON Scotland's policy and campaigns please visit our web site. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Automation and the case for government intervention

The robots are coming to take your job - or maybe not quite yet.

As the recent ScotGov/ STUC paper puts it, there are two schools of thought. Those who believe we stand on the cusp of widespread technological unemployment to those who believe the labour market will prove, as it has in the past, much more resilient. It may simply be my age, but I tend to fall into the latter category.

I can recall futurologists telling us that we would all have portfolio careers, yet in practice the amount of time we work for the same employer has actually increased. Yes, automation has resulted in fewer jobs in some sectors, but it has created new ones that we would never have thought of twenty years ago. 


I was pleased to read that my ageing instinct is supported by Danish academic robotic experts who argue that there is still a long way to go before robots will be able to match a number of fundamental human skills. They give five reasons why robots aren’t about to take over the world. These include the abilities of the human hand and manipulation that robots are nowhere to replicating. Humans also have tactile perception through sensors in our magnificent skin. Finally, robots haven't got the human interaction and reasoning skills of humans.

So, robots are a reality today in industry and they will appear in public spaces in more complex shapes. But in the next two decades, robots will not be human-like, even if they might look like humans. Instead they will remain sophisticated machines.


That doesn't mean that we shouldn't plan for the future. At the start of my career as a trade union official, we were busy negotiating 'new technology agreements'. They addressed the direct workforce implications of computerisation, but didn't always tackle the workforce planning and wider economic and social policy implications of automation.

As I said in Monday's Herald feature on the ARI report: "Proper planning and strategy is needed now, not further down the line. We should be anticipating where we are likely to see job losses and putting measures in place to ensure that we have a just transition to new types of jobs.  Industry will not do this, it's very hard to get companies to plan that far in advance, so government needs to step up to the plate."

The ARI report revealed the UK is lagging behind other countries when it comes to preparing for the changes - with education and training the main areas of concern. It lists the UK as number 8 in the world in preparing for the expected rise in robots. Education and training in schools and the workplace is a key concern. The report found that UK primary schools have not focused enough on developing critical thinking and problem solving skills.

That brings me back to the ScotGov/STUC report. It gives us a very balanced view of the evidence, without coming down on one side or the other. However, they highlight that researchers on both sides of the future of jobs debate share concerns over the potential distributional consequences of technological change. The OECD finds that; “low qualified workers are likely to bear the brunt of the adjustment costs... the likely challenge for the future lies in coping with rising inequality". There are also significant regional differences. For example, the OECD report says 33% of jobs in Slovakia are at risk, compared to only 6% in Norway.


The report points to labour market trends in Scotland, few of which have been driven by technology. The Scottish Government points to their labour market strategy and the Fair Work Convention. As well as their support for new industries and the planned Just Transition Commission.

These are all worthwhile initiatives, although they are often stronger on process than delivery. If we are to seriously address the challenges of automation it requires a radical industrial strategy coupled with much stronger Fair Work measures. We need to be more like Norway than Slovakia, otherwise automation will have significant job consequences and create an even more unequal society.


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