Future of work – bleak or bright?

June 29 2016  —  by Chris Jones, Chief Executive, City & Guilds Group

Britain is often warned about threats affecting the future of the workforce. The rise of the robots. Globalisation. Immigration. Artificial intelligence. The rise of the ‘Uber economy’. But will this speculation ever become reality? And is the British workforce naïve to the inevitable change?

This was the focus of City & Guilds Group’s Skills Debate this year, which was hosted by the Lord Mayor at Mansion House. Chaired by Andrew Neil, the debate picked up on recent findings from the City & Guilds Group’s inaugural Skills Confidence 2016 report – and brought together the views of John Philpott (Director of The Jobs Economist), Sherry Coutu (Tech Entrepreneur and Founder of the Scale-Up Institute), Sahar Hashemi (Entrepreneur and Founder of Coffee Republic) and myself.

Here are three of the big trends we discussed:

1.    Automation & artificial intelligence

Our Skills Confidence research showed that just 10% of people believe automation and artificial intelligence will impact their job prospects over the next decade. But according to Andy Haldane, Chief Economist at the Bank of England, some 15 million British jobs could be automated in the future.

So how big is the threat of automation and artificial intelligence? Well, as Sahar Hashemi explained, ‘There is plenty a robot can’t do.’ Most notably, empathise. Amidst the rise of the machines, people skills will become hot-property, and will be essential for employees hoping to safeguard their careers. 


2.    The intergenerational workforce

Britain has an ageing population. By 2022 there will be 3.7 million more people aged between 50 and State Pension age, but 700,000 fewer people aged 16-49. And people are living longer; a child born today will likely live to at least 105. This means their working lives will be close to 70 years.

However, there are currently 1.2 million people in the UK aged between 50 and State Pension aged who are unemployed. If half of these people were to move to employment, it could boost GDP up to £25 billion a year.

There are many brilliant initiatives such as Future Proof (backed by the City & Guilds Group) that support young people into work – but what about the older workforce?

We need to ensure people are prepared to work longer – and have the right skills to do so. That’s why BITC is committed to tackling this issue by encouraging businesses to develop a long-term strategic approach to recruiting and retaining older workers. The means training their whole workforce – including older workers – to ensure their skills stay relevant. Likewise businesses and education providers need to work together to help older people re-enter the workplace.


3.    Middle skilled jobs & the ‘gig’ economy

Due to the advances in technology and outsourcing of jobs overseas, middle-skilled jobs have declined in recent years. John Philpott explained work is taking on an hourglass structure, split between high-skilled, problem-solving jobs at the top, and low-skilled jobs at the bottom. What’s more, jobs at both the top and the bottom of the hourglass are increasingly likely to be on fixed-term contracts – a symptom of the so-called ‘gig economy’.

Those who embrace the gig economy model may have less job security, but more flexibility in their working lives. Likewise for employers, hiring more people this way creates new challenges – for them, and their permanent staff.


Preparing for the new world

The world is changing. We can’t deny that brings both opportunities and challenges. At the end of the debate, Sherry Coutu said, the ‘future is bright’ and I was inclined to agree as long as individuals and businesses prioritised investing in developing their skills. But keep in mind this was before the results of the referendum – which has introduced a whole new level of uncertainty to what the future economy looks like in the UK.

If anything, the decision to leave the EU has only added urgency to the need to prioritise skills development as the way British business can access skilled workers will change. My concern is that our recent research found that most British workers (92%) were confident in their skills for the future, while 75% are confident their jobs will exist in ten years’ time.

This complacency is dangerous as it means we could find ourselves unprepared to rise to the challenges, and opportunities, the future will bring. Businesses must plan ahead and invest in the right training initiatives to support their employees to develop their skills for the future.This means acknowledging the changing landscape. Adapting to an ageing and multigenerational working population. Embracing the evolution of technology.

The responsibility lies with both employers and employees. Employers must be aware of the trends that could impact their workforce, inform their workforce, and provide the right training to ensure employees are ready for change. And employees must invest their time in developing their skills. If they don’t, they will struggle to survive in the future world of work and, worse, Britain will struggle to compete in the increasingly global economy.

You can read more about the City & Guilds Group’s Skills Confidence research here.

Click here to watch the Skills Debate in full.

Chris Jones

As Chief Executive, Chris Jones’ role is to set the strategic direction of the City & Guilds Group and lead the Management Board. Since joining in 2008, he has led City & Guilds through a period of significant growth, which has enabled further investment in the organisation to benefit its learners. Chris plays a prominent role in driving the national and international skills agenda – something he has personal experience of as he followed the vocational education path himself. He is a member of the Business in the Community Talent and Skills Leadership team and a Governor at the Activate Learning group of colleges, formerly the Oxford and Cherwell Valley College Group. Before joining City & Guilds, Chris held several senior management positions in Pearson and Reed Elsevier. In his former post, he transformed Harcourt Education International, implementing a customer-centric vision to grow revenue. Chris also served as Senior Vice President at LexisNexis Risk Management Group and Group Director at Financial Times Electronic Publishing.