Businesses must increase efforts to prepare workers for automation, MPs say

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Government and businesses need to step up efforts to prepare employees for automation in the workplace, a group of MPs has said, or the UK risks being “left behind” in the fourth industrial revolution.

In a report published today, the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee said that not only were there still “too few” robots in UK workplaces, but employers had “little incentive” to invest in more than the minimum skills and training needed to prepare workers for technological change.

It added that a lack of awareness and understanding around automation was harming business productivity, and that the UK was not seeing the potential to improve the quality of work – such as the four-day working week – that technology offered.

The UK is already lagging behind other G7 countries when it comes to the adoption of robotics, it said.

Rachel Reeves, Labour MP and chair of the BEIS committee, said the real danger for the UK economy and future jobs growth was “not that we have too many robots in the workplace but that we have too few”.

“The government has failed to provide the leadership needed to help drive investment in automation and robot technologies. If we are to reap the potential benefits in the future of improved living standards, more fulfilling work and the four-day working week, the government needs to do more to support British businesses,” she said.

Among the report’s recommendations was that the government considers financial incentives for businesses that invest in learning and development to support the reskilling of staff.

It also said the government should encourage investment in AI and robot technologies to capitalise on the “productivity, economic growth and ultimately job creation and higher earnings” that increased automation would bring.

As it stands, the report said, attempts to implement the four-day working week had proven problematic, concluding: “We agree with the CIPD that a four-day week is feasible, but not currently practical.”

Commenting on the report, Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, said too often companies investing in AI or automation “failed to fully consider the workforce factors and people management practices” preventing them from getting the best return.

“To avoid this pitfall, they should consult staff ahead of any changes and consider the implications of new technology for staff training and development, job design and job quality,” he said.

Willmott added that employers needed to start embracing technology as a tool to improve the quality of work, arguing that, without better people management capability, radical work solutions such as a four-day week would risk a further rise in work intensity and burnout.

“We have already seen increases in reported work intensity and a rise in working time lost to stress, anxiety and depression in recent years,” he said.

The BEIS committee report also warned of the risk of a mismatch between the skills workers currently had and those businesses would need in the future, calling on government, academia and employers to all act to ensure employees were ready for the transition to automation.

The report highlighted the risk posed by automation of “widening existing inequalities and increasing regional disparities”, and described the current lack of planning by the government in mitigating this risk as “worrying”. It called for efforts to help at-risk workers develop the skills required to work in the growing automation and technology sectors, learn to work effectively alongside automation technology, or retrain for skills and careers less likely to be affected.

Speaking to People Management, Dr Valentina Battista, a lecturer in HR management at Cranfield University, said retraining people was the most important thing businesses could do. “Automation is already happening in the workplace, and employees will need new skills in the future. Research suggests these will be complex problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity,” she said.

Battista added that technology promised other changes to work, such as more flexible working, open workspaces and less use of physical offices. “Research suggests that the workplace will look different,” she said.

In March, the Office for National Statistics reported that around 1.5 million jobs in England were at high risk of some of their duties and tasks being automated in the future, with lower-skilled and lower-paid roles most likely to be affected.

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