In the past week, HSBC and Boots chemists have between them announced thousands of job cuts, each citing the growth of digital. They are not alone – in recent months Sainsbury’s, Standard Chartered, Lloyd’s bank and others have said similar things.
Such announcements have led to fears about a digital cull of jobs as companies increasingly automate parts of their business with technology, to the extent that people simply shrug their shoulders at the apparent inevitably of it all.
It was ever thus. Throughout the history of business technology, scaremongers have warned that IT is going to eliminate thousands upon thousands of jobs, leaving millions out of work. You might have noticed that it never happened.
That’s not to say that technology doesn’t have an effect – clearly hundreds of thousands of UK workers have lost jobs as a result of digital transformation in the past 30 years. But warnings of subsequent employment crises simply haven’t come true. New jobs have been created, often as a direct result of new technologies, needing new skills.
However, one recurring trend has been the time lag between the loss of old jobs and their replacement with new ones. This is not only the case with IT – look at the swathes of miners left unemployed in the 1980s, or the decimation of the fishing industry on the North Sea coast. Economic progress eventually created new work, even if that work was very different.
Fears of a digital scrapheap for old jobs are unfounded, but nobody seems to be learning from those lessons of history. It is obvious that many current roles will no longer be needed as companies – and governments – make better use of technology and automate more functions. There is no doubt that people will be put out of work as a result. We know with absolute certainty this will happen, even if we don’t know exactly where or when.
So why does nobody plan ahead to ease this digital transition? The emerging digital jobs cull is not a failure of employment, it’s a failure of training. Where do all those HSBC and Boots workers turn to for help gaining the new skills they will need for the digital economy that replaced them?
Companies and government share responsibility for making access to training easier. Employers shedding jobs through digital transformation should be encouraged – forced? – to offer training opportunities to affected staff.
The government has a welcome focus on helping young people to train through apprenticeships – but is much less proactive in helping experienced workers affected by the ongoing digital shift in the economy.
The UK’s current high employment levels risk masking the real threat from the gap between digital culling jobs and creating them. The UK needs to plan ahead to help affected workers bridge that gap with training for the new skills they will need.