The Labour Market in a digital future: Providing the skills to protect employment

Technological progress is sweeping through the global economy, permeating through the ranks of the British workforce indiscriminately. We are often told that the robots are coming.

Whilst driverless trucks take over the roads in the place of delivery drivers, paralegals are being unseated by programed computer systems. Both white and blue-collar workers alike are under threat of being replaced by their automated counterparts.

It is natural for workers to feel threatened by technological progress. The Luddite movement of the early 19th Century, when Nottinghamshire workers destroyed the cotton mills that threatened their livelihoods, reveals the evolving nature of the relationship between work and technological progress. Of course workers’ concerns cannot be ignored, yet the future of the labour market under the fourth industrial revolution need not be so ominous, if managed by the right political party.

In the 1930s the economist John Maynard Keynes was actually optimistic about the future of work, foreseeing an emancipation of labour with the onset of a 15-hour working week. The World Economic Forum also projects a degree of optimism for the future. Whilst it does anticipate a significant decline in job sectors characterised by routine, such as telemarketing, it also predicts a surge of jobs in technical sectors such as architecture and engineering which are expected to provide 2 million more jobs worldwide by 2020.

What is more, many jobs are not expected to disappear entirely; rather the typical tasks required for certain jobs will be redefined. For example, besides giving legal consultations, it is expected to become typical for lawyers also to design systems that are able to give legal advice as part of their job description. This redefinition of work is often conceptualised as an increase in the flexibility and independence of working life, as provided for by digital technology. New employers such as Deliveroo are allowing workers to pick up work at the reach of their smartphone, connecting delivery drivers to their customers via a downloadable app. This aspect of work redefinition does, however, risk job insecurity, and thus requires sufficient regulation to avoid exploitation, an issue the incumbent Tory government has failed to respond to. With these momentous changes in the world of work, the focus for protecting employment thus needs to be on how new jobs can be attracted to the UK, and how workers can retain their jobs amidst a change in employers’ expectations.

It is clear that the Conservative response to this issue has been inadequate. In implementing a race to the bottom in working rights and regulations, the Conservatives have tried to make taking on labour as cheap as possible to attract investment in the UK economy, legislating, for example, to restrict the right to industrial action and refusing to regulate against the misuse of zero-hours contracts. Yet this approach has essentially failed to address the root of the problem; that modern workers require new skills to do new types of work. The disastrous results of this policy approach, is evident in the recent reports from the Office for National Statistics, which puts UK productivity bellow pre-crisis levels in 2007.

The World Economic Forum estimates that a third of skills that will be required by employers in 2020 are not considered crucial in jobs today. Soft social skills such as persuasion will be valued equally as highly as evermore-necessary technical skills, such as computer programming. Whilst the 2017 Conservative Manifesto pledged to provide new skills, announcing it would “establish new institutes of technology”, there is little substance behind the rhetoric. The previous Conservative government ruthlessly cut funding to Further Education Colleges, the pinnacle of British technical education, cutting their budgets by 14% in 2010-15 parliament. The current Conservative government is continuing its ignorance towards the needs of the UK education system, only recently agreeing grudgingly to lift the 1% cap on public sector pay, at a time when schools are struggling to recruit teachers, with a fall of 7% in teacher trainees being recorded in March of this year.

By contrast Labour’s well-known policy of investment-led growth provides an economically consistent approach to the problem of skills provision. Labour’s plan to invest £8.4 billion in UK education, creating a National Education Service, promises to provide the economy with the skills it requires to grow, giving British workers the chances they so desperately need. Not only will Labour provide the technical skills required by the economy, making Further Education courses free at the point of use, it will also address the disconnection between British education and the skills demanded by employers, commissioning annual reports from the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, to improve curriculum content. Furthermore, as highlighted in the recent Taylor review of Modern Employment Practices, government funding for lifelong learning is declining at time when employees are in desperate need of retraining. This is another area provided for in the Labour manifesto, which commits to introducing free lifelong learning to allow employees to upskill at any stage in their career.

It is overall clear that change in the world of work is imminent. The decline of sectors dominated by routine working patters, and the change in employers’ expectations, presents challenges. Yet, with new forms of work becoming available, and the rise of the technical sector, there are also opportunities. If Britain is to succeed in this new age of technology, it needs to invest in its people and provide them with the skills they need. This is something only the Labour Party is prepared to do.

David Robinson

Epsom and Ewell CLP

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