Govt action urgently needed if UK is to keep up with automation revolution

Posted on 27 Sep 2019 by Jonny Williamson

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has outlined the serious failings of government to adopt the fruits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution as swiftly as its neighbours, urging it to reinforce STEM subjects at universities so industry leaders have a fighting chance to take the reins with service robotics and AI in the future.

Upbraiding an “increasingly narrow” school curriculum that should be preparing people for jobs of the future that are “yet to exist”, the report begins by immediately pressing the “crucial” matter of education and lifelong learning in the tech sector.

Manufacturing Work - image courtesy of Depositphotos.Greater opportunity for co-operative ownership models of new technologies, processes and robots where workers benefit is also encouraged in the Automation and the Future of Work report.

“We have seen that the practices of businesses such as Amazon and Uber can lead to workers being exploited by increasingly monopolistic firms who earn huge returns that do not flow back to the workers who help create that wealth,” it states.

“Co-operative ownership models, greater employee engagement, stronger employment legislation and a fairer corporate tax regime are key to ensure public support for the benefits of a growth in automation, a rise in living standards and a fair economy and society.”

Who is at risk from automation?

The impact of automation will be felt differently across a range of demographics, industries and occupations, according to the report.

The Office for National Statistics says jobs that have a low risk of automation are mostly held by those with a degree (87%), while nearly 60% of high-risk jobs are held by those with A-Level qualifications or below.

Women account for around 70% of those in jobs undertaking the most at risk tasks, but only 42% at low risk of automation.

Risks in London and the South East were found to be low when compared to other regions in the UK, especially poor and former industrial areas.

What do we need?

BEIS makes several recommendations to the government in its report about the possibilities of robotics and automation to enhance manufacturing productivity, which it believes the UK will depend on in the future.

The first  is that the government develop a UK Robot and AI Strategy by the end of 2020 as part of the Industrial Strategy, in order “to improve automation adoption and support British industries”.

It makes this demand claiming the UK’s progress on automation has been sluggish to date and that our problem is not too many robots, but too few. It states that in 2015, the UK had just 10 robots for every million hours worked, compared with 167 in Japan. By 2017, BEIS says the UK represented just 0.6% of industrial robotics shipments.

UK manufacturers are confident about growth prospects in 2018 - image courtesy of Depositphotos.The also report seeks to expand implementation of the government-backed and industry-led Made Smarter scheme which largely benefits SMEs and which BEIS says has the potential to boost UK productivity.

The department acknowledges the “slow but impressive” progress of Made Smarter following a pilot in the North West, recommending the government “commit to a fully-funded roll-out across the UK” based on the pilot results.

The report bemoans the demise of the Manufacturing Advisory Service (MAS) at the hands of the government in 2015 which it says was a “mistake”, and makes a recommendation that Whitehall fund an impartial advice service that is “fully accessible to SMEs” and available to businesses that want to invest in automation.

On research and innovation, the department asks that a service robotics catapult within the Catapult Network be established outside London and the South East, to encourage public and private funding and support for British robotics businesses.

Further, it insists the UK immigration policy ensure businesses can “recruit and retain researchers from around the world” as the country leaves the EU, to support the domestic automation industry.

To protect workers BEIS has also recommended that the government works with industry to identify the sectors and skills “most at risk from automation” and develops an action plan to manage this transition.

It believes the government should provide financial incentives to businesses who invest in learning and development to their workforce, while prioritising reskilling at a national level.

Lastly, BEIS asks that the government find new areas of job automation via the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund considered “dirty, dangerous and demanding” for workers; that the government establish a leadership group of experts in support of a Robotics Sector Deal under the Strategy; and that tax incentives to encourage investment in new technology, such as automation and robotics, feature in the next budget.


Faster horses? Henry Ford said if he’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have said faster horses, not cars - image courtesy of Depositphotos.BEIS couches much of its argument in the assumption that, if properly managed, a more automated Britain should improve productivity and the supply of high-quality jobs, while creating more leisure time for working people.

If government doesn’t heed the call in good time, BEIS fears “entire regions could be left behind”, British businesses will become uncompetitive, SMEs will continue to suffer and academics will be left to fend for themselves in the face of better-resourced neighbouring nations.

“The potential gains that automation can bring for the UK economy cannot be left to chance,” it says.

“We recommend that the government urgently brings together employers, workers, academia and automation developers to design a UK Robot Strategy on how it plans to promote and manage the transition to a more automated world of work.”

By Rory Butler, Digital Journalist 

*All images courtesy of Depositphotos