Politics has always rightly involved forthright debate but in...
Today we are closer to full employment than for many years. During the recession of 2008-9 unemployment statistics soared but now we have record numbers in work. 31.75 million (74.5%) are employed, 23.22 million working fulltime and 8.53 million working part-time. These are the best figures since comparable records began in 1971. But how long will this last?
Brexit poses one threat to them. The Japanese Government warned Theresa May last week that Japanese firms in the UK could relocate to the EU if the terms negotiated for our withdrawal do not include access to the EU single market for their products. Firms such as Nissan, Honda and Toyota employ 140,000 people in Britain. They are concerned because a majority of their cars are exported to Europe. That is a small percentage of the 31.75 million but in specific communities where they manufacture these cars, such as Sunderland, the impact would be serious. This is not just about the effects of Brexit because there are other long term threats that need to be recognised now to shape policies that reduce their impact in the future.
Automation technologies are another potential future threat to employment. They are attractive to companies because they can reduce costs, do some jobs better than people and increase productivity. Productivity in British industry is poorer than in any of the other G7 group of industrial nations. Software and robotics can also undertake tasks that would be unsafe for human workers. Law firms can use computer software to search through piles of documents to find relevant precedents that hitherto was done by paralegal staff. Automated translation programmes can help firms that export their goods to non-English speaking markets. Driver-less cars and lorries are no longer a figment of science-fiction. None of these examples is detrimental in themselves but they are potential threats to the jobs of those they will replace.
A survey published in 2014 by Deloitte suggested that 35% of jobs in the UK could be automated in the foreseeable future. A Bank of England report put the potential threat to 15 million jobs. Those jobs could include sales, transport, logistics and administration as well as shop floor jobs involving mechanical tasks such as car manufacturing. Of course people have to develop the software and make the machines but the important point is that many of the threatened jobs are done by low skilled workers. This would widen the gulf between highly skilled workers and the rest. Theresa May says she wants her Government to do more to close this gulf and that surely has to be morally, politically and economically right but how will this translate into Government policies.
The most obvious answer has to be about education and training. The previous Government’s drive to increase opportunities for apprenticeships is relevant and needs to be continued but schools will also need to better prepare pupils for change and adaptability, not one lifetime career. Tax and welfare policies will also need rethinking to reduce the costs of employing people and supporting those made redundant by new technology and needing to retrain for a new job. Inequalities between skilled and unskilled workers could become a potential political issue and areas that have a higher percentage of low-skilled jobs may need higher levels of public investment. These are future problems that need to be anticipated now by government if Mrs May’s pledge to govern for all the people are to be taken seriously.