Planes, trains and automatons

The robots are coming but are they really a threat or will they open doors to new skills and opportunities?

So the robots are going to take our jobs. Anyone that watched Channel 4 drama Humans will have a warped view of how that particular idea will pan out. While TV and in particular Hollywood creates its own vision of our robotic future, academic researchers have done their best to ground the idea, albeit while sprinkling an element of fairy dust.

In 2013 Oxford University academics Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne released a paper, The Future of Employment, containing a list of occupations with an automation probability score. The most likely jobs to be automated include telemarketers, insurance underwriters, watch repairers and accountants’ clerks, but high on the list are also legal secretaries, models, estate agents, cooks and dental technicians.

Too futuristic? It’s a common misconception that robotics is still the stuff of tomorrow’s world. In industry, robotics has been used since the late 1970s. Interestingly in the US, the Robotic Industry Association released a statement in March saying that the country’s industrial market had ordered a record 14,232 robots in the first quarter of this year. GE in the US has also been using robots and automated sensors to help improve aircraft building and maintenance, wind farm, locomotive and gas pipe maintenance. It’s a clear indication of how businesses are buying into the potential economic benefits of automation.

So what does this mean to the future of skills and employment? Despite the current trend in scaremongering and robot bashing (don’t confuse Stephen Hawking’s criticism of Artificial Intelligence here – that’s a whole different ball game) there is a suggestion that robots are in fact good for economies and some jobs.

Professors of economics Georg Graetz and Guy Michaels (from Uppsala University and London School of Economics respectively) recently released the findings of a study, which found that while some low skilled workers could be under threat, automation will increase the need for higher skilled labour, particularly in advanced manufacturing.

In July this year, analysis by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) supported this idea. There is, it says, a growing shortage of skills in robotics and 3D printing in particular and an expected shift towards increased research and development capabilities in manufacturing.

“If only we could generate skills on a 3D printer,” said Ann Watson, Chief Executive of Semta, the Sector Skills Council for the engineering and advanced manufacturing industries, in the UKCES statement. “The evolutionary process of IT - and its impact on manufacturing - ever quickens and we are here to keep ahead of the curve. It is essential that the skills needs of the nation are met if we are to prosper in the decades ahead.”

This is surely where opportunity knocks, not just for a new generation of young people keen to develop new, job-worthy skills but for trainers too. Developing courses and tailoring them to meet the specific requirements of industry is not new. A quick Google search can tell you that much but with robotics, trainers have a new opportunity to pioneer skills that will underpin the next generations of industry.

If we don’t of course, the UK will lag behind the rest of the world, producing a generation of increasingly redundant workers that would be happy to live in the fictional world of Humans and ape the show’s refrain;

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question.”

If only they’d paid attention.

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Supporting the government’s ‘Digital by Default’ strategy we’re keen everyone has the skills and confidence to use IT. Here, we share thoughts on a variety of digital matters.

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