Skilled workforce key to making success of Industrial Strategy
Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Fourth Industrial Revolution Alan Mak MP writes following the publication of the Industrial Strategy White Paper.
“March of the machines makes idle hands,” screamed a headline from the New York Times in 1928, at the height of fears over job losses to new technology.
Concerns that automation might end the need for human workers are as old as the Luddite movement, a group of 19th century textile workers that opposed mechanisation during the First Industrial Revolution.
Economist John Maynard Keynes called this process “technological unemployment”, but history shows us that new technologies have always disrupted employment, but never destroyed it, as old jobs are replaced by new roles.
Predictions over mass unemployment from technology have always proved false, and through improved education and skills, the UK has created one of the most successful labour markets in the world. Employment is at a historic high, with one of the fastest rates of post-recession job growth relative to other major economies.
Yet as the Industrial Strategy White Paper released on Monday points out the nature of work in Britain is starting to change at its most rapid rate in history. Disruption from automation and artificial intelligence as the Fourth Industrial Revolution accelerates will cause entire industries to disappear, and now it’s down to the Government to ensure that it prepares our workforce for the jobs of tomorrow.
The Industrial Strategy is an impressive plan of action from the Government, with an extra £406 million to boost the number of students taking science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects and the implementation of a new National Retraining Scheme that supports people to re-skill, beginning with a £64m investment for digital and construction training.
That’s on top of a previous commitment worth £500 million from the Government in the Spring Budget to introduce T-levels to ensure we have a world-class technical education system. Last month the first of these were announced, and will include content developed by leading industry professionals from Rolls Royce, Fuijitsu and EDF.
As Sir James Dyson has said, for most modern high-tech businesses, “the critical shortage is of highly skilled engineers, scientists, mathematicians and coders […] these are the brains that will help us to generate the algorithms, software, hardware and intellectual property that we need to stand a chance at exporting.” The Government is rightly tackling this problem head-on.
But there is still more that we can do, and I am calling for the introduction of a National Skills Review (NSR) at the start of each parliament to take a snapshot of the labour market and identify areas at high risk from automation. This strategic view would mean that the Government could re-direct resources and focus on re-skilling these workers.
This NSR could also look at the regional disparity of skills across the country and ensure that all regions and nations of the UK have the ability to adapt as this technological revolution takes place.
In the run-up to the financial crash the up-skilling of the UK’s workforce accounted for around 20 per cent of total labour productivity growth. That’s why it’s vital for the long-term health of our economy that we take action now.
Using the Industrial Strategy we can build on the work done to get 1.8million more children into good and outstanding schools in England since 2010, as well as drawing from our strong base of universities and higher education providers.
Every technological revolution brings about unprecedented change, and it’s important that we fight the narrative that this will create mass unemployment. Jobs will be created, but in order to take advantage of them, as the Industrial Strategy righty points out, we need to invest in our workforce.
I hope that this is just the start of Government creating a culture of life-long learning, giving people the opportunity to grow their earning power throughout their working lives.
Alan Mak is MP for Havant and Founding Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Fourth Industrial Revolution