A new focus on training is needed to tackle transition to a digital economy

There is an emerging sense of fear around the effect that the digital revolution is going to have on jobs.

Recently there has been a swathe of articles and surveys warning of an impending jobs catastrophe as technology automates more processes and functions. With customer self-service through web and mobile channels, you need fewer call centre staff. With mass IT automation through the cloud, you’ll be waving goodbye to datacentre workers. And as public services go “digital by default”, so thousands of civil servants and council employees are made redundant.

Or so the story goes.

Technology has always brought a looming fear of job cuts. For the past 30 years, every new tech trend has been associated with similar warnings – but the jobs apocalypse has never really happened.

Of course, say the doomsayers, that’s because we’re only now really entering the stage where technology is truly transforming the way we live and work. On this point, they may have a case.

But surely, this is not a jobs issue – it’s a training issue.

Look at the shipbuilding industry in the UK – it’s been in the news because of BAE Systems’ decision to shut its Portsmouth dockyard and cut jobs in Scotland. We’ve heard anguished debate about losing shipbuilding skills in the UK – an industry upon which Britain built much of its historic wealth.

Trade unions have implored the government to step in and support the sector with further investment. But why? What’s the point of saving a 19th century industry that has moved to regions with cheaper labour and bigger facilities?

Why save those skills in the UK, when we can re-train those workers with new skills for the digital age?

A survey this week by the Cloud Industry Forum suggested that only one in 10 companies that have adopted cloud computing reduced the size of their IT team as a result. Most have redeployed staff on new, revenue-generating projects. That’s the way to do it.

The government is right to not prop up ailing industries – but it is wrong to leave the affected workers to an uncertain fate. We need a new focus on training – and with a growing shortage in IT and digital skills, there is plenty of demand.

A new approach is needed where government enables cross-industry communication on skills needs, so workers affected by new technologies of all kinds can be matched with shortages elsewhere, and a framework established for training them to fulfill the needs of those new jobs.

The digital world is breaking down established hierarchies and traditional top-down networks. In a massively connected digital world. We need new relationships between employers, unions, workers and government that puts training and skills development at the heart of the industrial transition that will radically change technologically enabled nations such as ours.