Bright side of automation

Viewpoint

Even if some roles are replaced with robots, engineers and their associated skills will continue to be highly sought after, says the IET’s Stephanie Fernandes

A recent report from Deloitte caused controversy last month by claiming that one-third of jobs in the UK are at risk from automation.

Research carried out by Deloitte and the University of Oxford indicates that:  “Technology, automation and robotics will cause a significant shift in the UK labour market in the next 20 years, with one-third (35 per cent) of existing jobs at risk of being replaced. Advances in technology will likely see jobs requiring repetitive processing, clerical and support services, replaced with roles requiring digital, management and creative skills. These trends are already well under way.”

However, we believe it is important to also consider the wider context of the engineering job market and the new opportunities that will emerge in the industrial landscape. The IET’s Skills and Demand in Industry Survey shows a clear demand for engineers in the UK whose skills are needed to meet industry needs and support growth. The 2014 report shows that more than half of companies are looking to recruit engineers in order to expand their business. This is against a backdrop of a higher proportion of employers reporting difficulties in finding the people they need. Fifty-nine per cent of companies indicated concerns that a shortage of engineers would be a threat to their business in the UK, yet 37 per cent are not confident in being able to find who they need due to a lack of suitably skilled people.

The report surveyed 400 companies from a broad range of sectors that are all planning to recruit engineering and technical staff. This shows that even if some roles are replaced by robotic and automated alternatives, engineers and their skills will continue to be highly sought after. The projected demand is for 87,000 new engineers and technicians each year for the next decade. The main focus now should be for employers and government to inspire and enable more young people to join the engineering profession through routes that are most appropriate to their strengths — whether this be academic or vocational. Better employer engagement with the education system is critical to create a system of education and training that satisfies the aspirations of young people while delivering the high-calibre engineers and technicians businesses need. More must also be done by employers to continually develop the skills of their existing workers.

A more recent report, the IET’s Ones to Watch, flagged robotics as one of the six top industries where the UK has potential to be a global leader. The report states that the rise of the robotics industry will create substantial skills demand from leading-edge R&D to technicians who will manage robots where they are being used. According to the RAS (Robotics and Autonomous Systems) 2020 report, the immediate area of need is for skilled researchers. It said: “It is vitally important that investment is made at an early stage so that innovation is not starved of its primary resource. The provision of skilled researchers in RAS technologies who can move with confidence between academic and industrial organisations is critical to making the UK a world leader in RAS.”

And while The Royal Academy of Engineering’s report Jobs and Growth suggests a broad need for 100,000 skilled engineers and scientists each year, the growth of the RAS market is likely to add to that. This means further demand across the skills spectrum.

To be successful in RAS, the UK will need to attract skills from overseas. But this is set to become a highly competitive market. The European Commission believes that by 2020, there will be 75,000 new jobs at European manufacturers of industrial and service robots requiring relevant skills or qualifications, as well as 30,000 additional new high-tech jobs in robotics and 140,000 new jobs in European service industries using a broad variety of service robots.

Further research by the International Federation of Robotics and Copenhagen Business School offers an insight on the effects of automation in industry. While a decrease in jobs is observed in the short term, the long-term net effect on employment in the wider economy shows an increase. The new jobs that are created tend to be of a higher skill level as employees progress into new roles or move into other industries. As a result, they are paid more, which has a positive impact on the economy.  This has been proven to be the case in counties such as Germany, Japan and South Korea who all have a much higher proportion of robots per manufacturing employee and are seen as being more competitive, have balanced economies and relatively low levels of unemployment.

For the UK to be globally competitive we need a system that allows us to bring in new engineers and upskill existing staff to work with the next generation of robotics. This comes from the development of skills and the wider adoption of automation in SMEs, both supported by government initiatives. 

Stephanie is a senior policy advisor at the Institution of Engineering and Technology