Scarce, but not absent: A local-level look at the future of automation in the UK

Author: Joe Fyans   |  

Scarce, but not absent: A local-level look at the future of automation in the UK

Our current research on local labour market influencing features an emphasis on the oft-predicted automation of many jobs by 2030. The arc of history bending towards the automation of jobs, manual and otherwise, is an idea which has transitioned smoothly from science fiction to accepted wisdom in recent years. This shift has been helped along by videos like this one, released by Amazon to demonstrate the seamless efficiency of its robotic warehouse staff. It is slightly eerie viewing, the machines themselves are distinctly non-threatening yet there is something uncanny in their effectiveness. It makes one feel somewhat like a plough horse in the 1890s looking at a tractor.

This reaction is a little hyperbolic – Amazon’s machines do not eliminate the need for people but undeniably reduce it, the manual element restricted to ‘babysitting several robots at a time’. No wonder Coventry’s cabinet member for jobs, Cllr. Jim O’Boyle, displayed a good deal of scepticism in responding to reports of a large (to the tune of eight football pitches) warehousing facility arriving in the region. The West Midlands has a larger stake than most English localities in the future of automated labour. The warehousing and transport sector accounts for 6.4% of employment in the region, above the national average, amounting to 188,000 jobs. Combined with the similarly at-risk construction sector, this number is cause for concern.

West Midlands East Midlands UK
Manufacturing Jobs 327,000 (11.1%) 295,000 (12.4%) 2,666,000 (7.6%)
Transport and Storage Jobs 188,000 (6.4%) 127,000 (5.3%) 1,748,000 (5%)
High Risk Jobs from Both Sectors (PwC Estimate) 257,760 (8.7%) 208, 508 (8.8%) 2,222,896 (6.4%)

Source: Nomis UK/BRES

PwC estimate that 46.4% of jobs in manufacturing and 56.4% of jobs in transportation and storage are at high risk of automation, placing just over a quarter of a million West Midlands jobs in the uncomfortable bracket of ‘likely to be automated by 2030’. Across the region, there is a clear need to upskill the population in order to meet the challenges of increasing automation. Both the West and East Midlands are below the national average for percentage of the population holding a National Vocational Qualification level 3 and above (A-Level or equivalent). This is in of itself not as troubling as the progress made towards improving the situation, this graph illustrates the trend towards upskilling in recent years in five localities which are below the national level:

The gradient of these curves indicates the rate at which the percentage of the population with an A-level equivalent or higher is growing. To put it crudely, the West Midlands is going to need a steeper curve in order to prevent a significant proportion of its working population finding themselves without options in the market for jobs by 2030.

The social and economic impact of automation is a national problem with local pressure points. Looking at an industrial future where humans are scarce but not absent (to paraphrase from Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s The Second Machine Age), it is plain that there is a crucial role for local government, empowered by Westminster, to play in easing this transition and helping the current occupants of these jobs stay active and equipped in the labour market. Our forthcoming report will make suggestions towards policy to enable the local authorities to take action in smoothing the transition, not just in the automation of manual jobs but also in the labour shortfall some areas will face with the introduction of national-level immigration controls in the wake of the UK’s exit from the European Union.