A Skills Revolution?
In the messy conflict between those who would not change and those who cannot wait, revolutions usually reveal their full nature only after they’re done; after the cordite has cleared.
When we think of the future of work, we tend to default to the worst possible outcome. I, Robot, Blade Runner, Ex-Machina, and A.I., present a dystopian reality where unrestricted technology undermines and eventually usurps the role of the worker. But is it really all that bad?
We talk about ‘robot-proofing’ society as if an apocalyptic conflict between ‘us-and-them’ looms ominously on the horizon. The Oxford Martin School’s assertion that almost half of all today’s jobs studied will be susceptible to automation. This does not bode well for the next generation.
It is true that the makeup of the workforce is changing. According to techUK, the rate of digital and technology-intensive jobs is growing at more than double the pace of traditional jobs.
The government’s Digital Economy Council has also observed that advertisements for job roles in technology and digital fields have increased by 36% since June 2020.This also reflects how the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this transitional demand in favour higher-skilled, ‘digital-compatible’ labour. Investment in the ingredients of the so-called ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ - like life sciences, consumer software, cybersecurity, robotics, and artificial intelligence - is a lodestone of Westminster’s ‘Levelling Up’ agenda. This is more of a revolution than a fleeting trend.
Should we be worried, or afraid, as we gaze into the crystal ball to see a transformed workforce in the future? In most instances new technology is driving change through unprecedented social prosperity and is digitising repetitive administrative tasks. This should free up opportunities for greater creativity. These ‘jobs of tomorrow’ will be requiring a high level of qualification and specialism. They will call upon a very different training and education system.
The Arc’s productivity in emerging ‘high-technology’ sectors is one of the greatest testaments to this effect, creating, rather than ultimately displacing, jobs for new generations.
For the last five years, the region has created an average of 44,000 new jobs each year, many of those in technology-related fields. In 2018, employment in the science and technical sector across the Arc grew by 6.1%, compared to a 1% expansion in employment for the Arc as a whole. Between 2009 and 2019, 72% of additional jobs created in the 10 most R&D-intensive industries were located within the ‘Golden Triangle’ of London, Oxford and Cambridge, a relationship which has supported the Arc’s human capital creation. The Arc is also home to one-third of the UK’s biotech employees, developing new drugs and therapies which, through the pandemic, have delivered value to public health on a global scale. There is also an extraordinary concentration of jobs in environmental services and stewardship.
It has been estimated that, with investment, there could be as many as 1.1 million new high-skilled jobs in the Arc by 2050. We already have one of the most highly qualified and specialist workforces in the UK. More than 60% of workers in Oxford and Cambridge are qualified to degree level or higher. Alongside the network of further education colleges and an enlightened network of support from local authorities and enterprise partnerships, the Arc plays host to one of the most diverse and dynamic group of universities. Location between the research-intensive giants of Oxford, Cambridge and Cranfield, we have the great skills and growth engines of the teaching-led universities, such as the Universities of Northampton, Bedfordshire, Anglia Ruskin, Buckinghamshire New and Oxford Brookes. A new model is also being championed by MK:U in the middle. Milton Keynes is also the home of the Open University, that utopian model that has a footprint across each of the UK nations. What is done here has the potential to reach and benefit the whole UK.
But what more should we be doing? The Arc promises to be one of the most attractive parts of the world in which to live. More can be done to retain our home-grown talent. Our economy performs on an international stage. What about mechanisms to attract the best international talent, expanding eligible prizes for fast-track emigration and the criteria for technical and entrepreneurial skills, and providing seamless pathways to pain-free domicile through visa sponsorship?
Already we can get a sense of the ‘jobs of tomorrow’ from the superclusters developing in the Arc today. Pioneering industries have so far captured the best of a burgeoning pool of human capital, but we ought to be replenishing this resource through a combination of upskilling, reskilling, and real opportunities to undertake technical training at all levels of education.
Now is the time to identify signs of promise and potential; to level-up and prepare for a future fully prepared to embrace the collective and collaborative opportunities that are promised once the revolution is done.