My history of British Manufacturing

My history of British Manufacturing
My history of British Manufacturing

Wednesday 19 June 2019

Employment in the 21st century symposium 18 June 2019

It is a subject that politicians won't talk about, except for one party promising new jobs and another to trumpeting record employment. Reports talk about robots taking over, but what is the truth; what is the evidence? What of the creative industries? More to the point, what is to be done?

One hundred people from across all stages of education, local government and industry came to Lincoln Drill Hall to hear presentations by people (see below) immersed in the debate. I offer here my reflections on a very thought provoking day.

I begin with my prejudice, which is a fear that AI (artificial intelligence) will cost jobs. This was dismissed as the Luddite Fallacy, harking back to the fear of early 19th century millworkers to the coming of machinery.  I also began with a strong feeling that 'middle order' jobs have already been lost and replaced with poorly paid unskilled work with variable hours. I am reminded of the brilliant TV drama Years and Years. I am also still worried.

The first speaker offered much needed evidence by showing just which jobs are vulnerable to AI, and they are largely those middle order clerical jobs. (This struck a chord with me in relation to my own writing where I uncovered photographs of massive offices for clerical work in support of army supply in WW2.) 
There could be a lot of clerical jobs at risk, perhaps 30% of all current jobs could to be lost. On the positive side new jobs will be created, many as Robot minders, which surely begs another TV drama. Those undertaking the new jobs will need to be trained and certainly those set to lose jobs might see it as a challenge beyond them.  This is Industry 4.0, the fourth industrial revolution this time with the focus on interconnectivity. A key issue to emerge from this process of job loss and job creation is the time lag between the two.

For me a fascinating insight came at the coffee break where I spoke to my old neighbour who works in a senior role in the care sector. We had both seen that care work was among the least likely to be replaced by AI. It is work that needs human empathy, however it is seriously undervalued. Later a questioner suggested that people without high aspirations could become 'hair dressers or care workers'. Without being dismissive of hair dressers, care work surely needs to be recognised as a profession and paid accordingly. It would be good if this debate could shed light on this.

What other jobs are 'safe'? Not artists, it would seem. AI can make perfect copies of great masters. I digress into some other of my own work pointing to JohnRuskin, (whose voice needs to be heard more generally in this debate - he was fearful of the impact of industrialisation on the wellbeing of workers), but who in this context, could, at the age of 21, copy the style of all the significant painters of his day but who only discovered 'true art' when he began to paint from nature. This gives a focus on what AI cannot do: General Intelligence, Value Judgements to name but two.

It isn't just AI and Robots, digital technology generally, not least digital printing, is making a big impact in improving the service offered to customers by Lincoln's biggest manufacturing employer, Siemens. This company has also seen huge benefit from empowering groups of employees and truly seeking their ideas: digital crowd sourcing. Nevertheless another key issue is the inevitable internal opposition to change.

All generations are different and of course none are understood by their parents. Generation Z, those aged between 8 and 23, are very different: they have no emery before 9/11; they have only lived in financially challenging times; they have only ever lived with digital technology; they are better informed, have strong opinions and feel empowered; they value tolerance and equality and reject being labelled. How will they fit in the changing work place? At Siemens they would be welcomed, but is it true of all employers? The voices we heard, can be heard in the form of a drama piece, Youthquake at Lincoln Drill Hall on October and on tour.

In looking at the economic changes that have taken place in the lifetime of Generation Z, significant are the decoupling of wages and productivity, the polarisation of the labour market with few highly paid, many low paid and a reducing number of medium paid jobs.

So, what is to be done, particularly in the context of Lincolnshire where geographical areas and differing groups of people have been untouched by general economic growth? Are there specific actions that can improve their lot? Incidentally there seems to be a correlation between these forgotten areas and those where people voted 'Leave' in 2016. A possible answer emerged in the thinking behind Inclusive Economics.

I look forward to follow up work from this day, for in truth this was but a start. We didn't begin to talk about job satisfaction, Universal Basic Income or the financial viability of careers in the arts.

Those speaking, introduced by University of Lincoln Vice-Chancellor, Mary Stuart, were Marc Hanheide, Professor of Intelligent Robotics & Interactive Systems University of Lincoln; Yuval Fertig, Economist at PwC; Neil Corner, Managing Director Siemens Lincoln; Toby Ealden, Artistic Director Zest Theatre; Dr Neil Lee, Associate Professor of Economic Geography, LSE. The event concluded with a panel of students questioned by Professor Libby John, Pro-Vice Chancellor, University of Lincoln and a reflection session with Liz Shutt, Director of Policy, University of Lincoln/Greater Lincolnshire LEP

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