Here come the robots: Automation threatens more jobs

Which workers are really most at risk of being replaced with machines? Well, it looks like the boss is safe, at least for now...
Written by Colin Barker, Contributor

London continues to be the nation's focus for jobs and especially jobs in the high-tech sector, but automation is a growing threat to a number of workers.

Research by consultants Deloitte forecast that overall the market for jobs in London is set to increase by 300,000 within the next six years. When surveyed, 73 percent of employers said they had plans to increase headcount within five years - only five percent forecast a reduction with 12 percent saying they expected no change.

So how big an increase in headcount is expected? A majority of employers, 58 percent, said they expected headcount to increase by more than 10 percent in that period while 33 percent said they expected an increase of up to 10 percent. Only 10 percent of respondents forecast a decrease.

But it's certainly not all good news: a substantial percentage of employers are forecasting a reduction in the numbers of employees because of greater automation in their organisation (41 percent), nearshoring (32 percent), and offshoring (27 percent).

"Although the replacement of people by machines is well understood, the scale and scope of the changes yet to come may not be,” the researchers said.

One way robots maybe replace tomorrow's workers is through the improvement of sensors, already used as much in the office as in the factory, but this will require further developments in robotics, the researchers say. Big data is another area of opportunity with algorithms able to perform “cognitive tasks more efficiently and effectively than labour”.

In the future, brain beats brawn every time

The broad conclusion of Deloitte's research is that in the future there will be fewer and fewer tasks where labour alone is required and more and more tasks where brainpower is the given.

"Advances in user interfaces enable computers to respond more efficiently to requests from customers, reducing the need for human intervention in some areas of customer service. Improved sensors and the creation of three-dimensional road maps are opening up possibilities for automated vehicle navigation," the report noted.

The research indicates that the jobs least at risk from computerisation are in areas such as senior management and financial services; computers, engineering, and science; education; legal services; community services; the arts and media; and health care. The jobs most at risk are in office and administrative support work; sales and services; transportation; and construction and extraction.

As for the UK, London has less to worry about in this area than other regions, but not by much. Across the UK 35 percent of jobs can be considered at high risk of being lost through automation, with 43 percent at low risk or no risk. In London those percentages show a wide difference with 30 percent at high risk and 50 percent at no risk.

Those results come from a separate research report, carried out by Carl Benedikt Frey, of the Oxford Martin School, and Michael A Osbornework, of the University of Oxford. Their paper, The Future of Work: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation?, can be found here.

When it comes to machines automating jobs, the Deloitte researchers predict there will be a huge geographical difference. “We found that within the UK, a lower proportion of jobs are at risk in London than in the rest of the UK,” they wrote. But even in London, the research suggests, “substantial changes are inevitable”.

The phenomenon, Deloitte points out, will affect the poor more than the wealthy. People in jobs in London “earning less than £30,000 a year are over eight times more likely to find their jobs disappear than those earning more than £100,000”.

The full Deloitte report, London Futures, is available here.

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