The Guardian published an article a few weeks ago about how Doncaster, once a coal mining heartland, then a waste-ground, has now reinvented itself as a hub for distribution centres. Fittingly, it has three of the beauties just for Amazon – the website which has been accused of destroying high street retail.
On my twitter feed, I regularly see sponsored posts with headers saying, ‘these jobs will be gone by the year 2020!’. It’s easy to forget that, as with industrialisation dropping a bomb on the farming communities of the 1700s, change is to a large degree inevitable. For example, slow and labour-heavy practices in the newspaper printing industry were always going to be swept away by the advent of digital printing. That particularly industry has seen a decline in jobs by 43% since 2001. It’s not just the process itself becoming quicker and cleaner, it is the associated change of far fewer people buying print media.
Lawyers and health care professionals have suffered from the internet ‘Google-isation’ of their professions. Neither is really considered a unique and specialised body of knowledge anymore as anyone with a smartphone can search, ‘how to get divorced’, or ‘pain in left leg’ and come away believing they know how to deal with the issue. In economic terms, this has translated into redundancies and the further development of an hour glass economy.
Thinking about white-collar jobs generally, law firms, insurance brokers and banks have now mostly given way to call centres. Teams of call-handlers dealing with routine matters collectively cost a business the same amount of money as one qualified professional used to, but get though more work. Artificial Intelligence (AI) has removed the need to have teams of real people spend hours checking reams of documents, as one computer programme can do this all by itself. Within these industries chatbots will inevitably take over more of the basic interactions as they do now when you call your bank (“Is your call about an overdraft, a loan, a credit card? Please say ‘loan’, ‘overdraft’, or ‘card’ so I may direct you.”)
New Jobs, New Opportunities
Technology will always lead to job losses, but we often forget that it can create them too. Twenty years ago, who had heard of a gamer, app developer, social media manager, SEO consultant, or influencer. These are all viable career choices that many of us may find ourselves moving towards in the not too distant future. Demographically we are an ageing population who will be working for longer. Working alongside technology is going to require us to adapt to it whether we like it or not.
The jobs that technology has created have also led to bolt-on areas of growth too. To return to our hour-glass economy, this has partly been driven by the need for specialisation. While book-keepers may have gone the way of the dodo, finance types specialising in complex tax or forensic work have seen their value swell. While some elements of legal practice have become democratised, areas such as intellectual property law have become more technical and niche due to the complexity of publishing on the internet.
Challenges for Learning & Development Managers
This means that, like Doncaster, we are going to have to keep reinventing ourselves and learning. As technology moves on and we see more and more AI within the workplace, and will have to continue developing our own skill-sets. For HR and L&D this will present a whole new challenge. A survey by Deloittes last year suggested that only 16% of businesses were ready to manage a workforce with people and AI working alongside each other.
Challenges for our profession will be:
- Balancing the demands of operational management within our people focus. However smart it becomes, AI will never never understand that John doesn’t like James and he won’t sit with Jerry, and he would really like to sit with Jane (but she thinks he’s creepy) but she wants to sit with Joanne. Whatever benefits tech brings us, we still need to manage human learning and relationships!
- The growth of remote working; how do we manage and support teams based in perhaps different continents? We talk a lot about teamwork and its benefits, but is this actually viable going forward?
- A changing workforce. Demographically, businesses are going to have to start being genuinely receptive to workers over the age of 50, non-neurotypical workers, and mothers returning to the workplace. Very different people with different life experiences and skillsets whom we will need to work alongside AI.
Back in the 1700s, Britain was the first country to industrialise. 300-odd years later, a massive growth in the service and quarternary sectors saw the erosion of industries such as shipbuilding and coal mining. The UK is therefore now one of the first countries to fully deindustrialise. Change is inevitable and reinvention is perpetual. The future is here.