Human Capital: workplace robots and bridging Brexit divisions

A new report, from the independent think-tank ‘Onward’, has issued an appeal to the new incoming Prime Minister, warning that millions of low or no-skills workers are at risk of being replaced by robots in the workplace unless there is a firm commitment to investment in retraining.

The report, 'Human Capital', sets out how such technological change could threaten to entrench existing regional and political divisions in British society unless radical policies are introduced, aimed at retraining millions of workers.

robots and burgers

Research for the report, ‘Human Capital: Why we need a new approach to tackle Britain’s long tail of low skills’, was funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), with statistical analysis of automation estimates contributed by the ONS Policy, Evidence and Analysis team and Michael Osborne, a professor in machine learning at the University of Oxford.

JRF is an independent social change organisation which works to solve UK poverty.

UK skills gaps

Human capital is the term given to the collective capability, knowledge and skills of those individuals employed by an organization.

The UK already has some of the biggest skills gaps in the developed world, with nearly a third of all workers (30%) classified as low skilled. The Human Capital report found that those workers particularly at risk from automation were overwhelmingly located in areas of Britain which are already struggling, such as Stoke-on-Trent. Women, and those workers from ethnic minorities, were especially vulnerable:

  • More than a quarter (27.5%) of workers with low or no skills are employed in roles that have shrunk in the past six years and which are likely to be automated in the future.
  • These workers are overwhelmingly located in areas that are already struggling economically:
    • -- The ten local authorities where people are most at risk of automation are fewer than 60% as economically productive as the ten least at-risk areas.
    • -- Fewer than 10% of the population of the City of London work in declining industries, compared to a quarter in such places as Knowsley, Stoke-on-Trent and Merthyr Tydfil.
  • At-risk workers are more likely to be female and from an ethnic minority:
    • -- Only 2 in 10 women work in industries with growing employment (compared to 4 in 10 men).
    • -- Regardless of how educated they are, black women are less likely than any other group to be working in a growth industry.
  • Local areas with high automation risk are statistically more likely to have voted Leave in the 2016 EU Referendum:
    • -- 48 of the 50 local authorities most at automation risk voted for Leave; 43 voted for the Brexit Party in the May 2019 European Elections.
    • -- 42 of the 50 local authorities most insulated from automation risk voted Remain; 28 voted for the Liberal Democrats in the May 2019 European Elections.

Bold reforms needed to tackle low skills

The report calls for the new Prime Minister to embrace a series of bold reforms, aimed at tackling Britain’s ‘long tail’ of low skills, and helping people and places at particular risk of automation, in order to ‘bridge the Brexit divisions’:

These initiatives include:

  • A new Retraining Tax Credit
  • A new £1 billion retraining fund for the National Retraining Scheme
  • Utilising ‘repatriated’ EU Structural Funds to attract high growth, low risk employment to regional areas of particular risk from automation or industrial decline

Health and Social Care Secretary, Matt Hancock said:‘Automation and technological innovation are having a transformative impact on our economy, our jobs and our daily lives. Britain has a bright future ahead if we choose to seize these opportunities – but we must make sure we take everyone with us and don’t leave anyone behind.’

Responding to the report, JRF Executive Director Claire Ainsley, said:‘Tackling the unacceptable rises in poverty among working families and rebalancing our economy is vital to bridging the Brexit divides that exist across the UK. As the jobs of the future are created, we must equip low-skilled workers with the knowledge and skills they will need to succeed.’

‘With work changing, we need to unlock more opportunities, so people can access well-paid, secure jobs. Our next Prime Minister has to unlock training opportunities for the 8.5 million low-skilled workers and commit to bold levels of investment to rebalance our economy in a way that helps deliver the jobs and skills places need to thrive in the future.’

See also

How to develop a more gender-balanced workplace

What to do after publishing your company’s gender pay gap report

Do your employees think you pay them fairly?

The rise of the gig economy


Onward's Report: Human Capital 

Response from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

ONS Report: Which occupations are at highest risk of being automated?

Image: Getty Images