Should manufacturing sector workers fear or welcome new information technology?

When technologies known as disruptive are introduced to any industry one thing is usually certain: humans will be replaced.

Workers quite rightly worry when their jobs can be done by machines. Employers do little to alleviate these worries with many of them salivating over the huge savings they can make by cutting staff. No matter what anybody says businesses are not particularly interested if up-skilling people in the same numbers as they are laying people off.

It is not a new thing. The term Luddites, which described the textile workers that destroyed the weaving machines that were replacing them, dates back to the beginning of the 19th Century. The manufacturing industry was transformed by the industrial revolution as modern machinery meant an acceleration of production and a reduction of human input.

Today we have another industrial revolution driven by technologies like artificial intelligence, Internet of Things and 3D printing which are shaking up every business sector. The pace of change today is of the likes never seen before. A self-driving car is a thing now and an unpiloted taxi drones are almost things.

Just yesterday I wrote a short news article about NatWest bank announcing the availability of its automated investment services. Software robots offer customers advice on how much money to invest and where to invest based on them answering a few questions. This might have seemed a thing of science fiction a few years ago, I mean who would trust their money with a robot? But now it wouldn’t shock your grandparents. Human financial advisors for people investing small amounts have a script to read to customers anyway, so what is the difference if a software robot does it.

But let’s look at manufacturing, which along with transport was transformed by the first industrial revolution which began in the 18th Century. Surprisingly a recent report form Barclays bank not only paints a picture of a lack of IT investment in the manufacturing sector, but also reckons that the adoption of technology like AI, IoT and big data will create 101,000 jobs in the UK manufacturing sector in the next 10 years. Although iot doesn’t say how many will be cut.

The bank said its research also found that of the manufacturers that have already invested, 32% of said it freed up staff to concentrate on more highly skilled work.

The report said technologies like sensors, big data, energy self-generation and machine learning, will lead to a big hike in employment in the industrial heartlands including the North West, Yorkshire & Humber, and the Midlands.

And as if by magic I was sent another report recently which looked at the number of jobs in different industries. Manufacturing was second bottom with a 46% drop in manufacturing jobs in the UK in the last 30 years (1987 to 2017). The number has fallen from 4.95 million to 2.66 million in that period. You can see the 30 Years of Jobs report from RS Components here.

Only mining and quarrying fared worse with a 69% drop in employees. Not surprising with heavy machinery controlled by computers doing the heavy work and self-driving trucks already moving earth around.

So a jobs boost in the sector would certainly be welcomed by manufacturers, who will hopefully still have a good market to aim at when the UK leaves the EU single market which is the biggest free trade area in the world.

Below is the graphic provided to me with that particular report.

The sectors that have seen the biggest percentage growth rates in employment levels since 1987 are the real estate industry (142% increase), science and technology (130% increase) and administrative sector (120% increase).

There are other interested figures here which all face their own kind of disruption. Tech innovators can take a look at the industries with high employment as sectors where disruptive digital technologies might be able to replace manual tasks, but at what cost to society? Technology is replacing jobs at a much higher rate than it is creating them or is replacing traditional full time work with freelance or gig work which offers less security to people.