The post-pandemic recovery has granted a ‘temporary reprieve’ for jobs at high risk of automation in the UK, according to Tech Monitor‘s analysis of job postings data from Emsi Burning Glass. Adverts for jobs involving document management and customer service have increased, as have roles in the manufacturing and logistics sectors. But automation could soon accelerate again.
Post-pandemic automation in the UK: high-risk roles bounce back
Analysis of online job adverts between 2017 to 2021 reveals that roles involving clerical work, customer service and – to a lesser degree – office management have enjoyed a post-pandemic bump.
These groups were all in decline before the pandemic. Last year, a report by PwC for the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy found that automation for these skills areas is underway, and likely to reach “full maturity in the 2020s”.
The rebound in customer service and office management jobs is likely due to the post-Covid economic recovery and a return to the offices in the UK, says Christopher Pissarides, regius professor of economics at the London School of Economics and Chair of the Institute for the Future of Work. But this does not preclude the possibility of accelerated automation in the near future. Customer service jobs, for example, are likely to “disappear completely” in the future, he says.
“I think companies are more cautious in their automation policies because of the uncertainties over Covid and its long-term impact, but I don’t see it as a sign that automation in these areas will be reversed," Pissarides explains. “I suspect it is a temporary reprieve and automation of these jobs will continue along the pre-Covid trend."
Jobs involving document management have not bounced back significantly since last year. It is an area that is especially easy for employers to automate, explains Pissarides, as it rarely makes up the majority of a job role's responsibility. “If workers lose their jobs in such roles, they’re easily transferable to other sectors of the company, if it’s a large company," he adds. "So it seems that these types of jobs tick all of the boxes for automation.”
Automation in manufacturing and logistics
Low to medium-skilled roles in the manufacturing and transport and logistics sectors also bucked the automation trend in 2021. These two industries are widely expected to see the highest amount of job losses in the UK, with more than a million jobs at risk in the next 20 years, according to PwC's analysis.
Job postings in these industries were in steady decline in the UK before the pandemic but now they are hiring at the fastest rate in five years. At the end of 2021, there were roughly 175,000 more job postings for lower to medium-skilled job postings in manufacturing and production compared to 2020, while the transport and logistics sector has also seen a similar surge in job postings.
This can also be attributed to the post-Covid recovery, says Pissarides, but internal resistance to automation and an aversion to risk could be additional factors. In the near term, he believes that widespread automation in the manufacturing industry in the UK would not be in the interests of companies if they want to maintain healthy labour relations.
“This could be largely due to internal resistance because companies in the UK might not want to have a reputation for firing workers and fully automating their processes,” he says. “But in the next five years and beyond that, I see the automation trend going ahead but perhaps in a more gradual way.”
Uncertainty over the regulation of autonomous vehicles may also have slowed automation in the transport and logistics sector, says Pissarides. The industry is waiting for a clear direction from government on regulatory policies and infrastructure investment, he explains.
“While all the necessary technology has already been developed, businesses are currently waiting to see how governments regulate such industries,” he says. “One of the biggest barriers to immediate implementation of autonomous vehicles is regulation and clearly defining culpability if two autonomous cars get into an accident, for example.”
The future of automation in the UK
Predicting the impact of automation on the current labour market is notoriously difficult, as estimates by different groups can vary and projections thrown off by unforeseen events like the Covid-19 pandemic, for example.
Global awareness of the inherent risks of AI and its threat to workers' rights can also have an impact on industries planning on implementing widespread automation in their daily functions. But automation in the age of AI also provides societies with a lot more choice about the kind of automation we want and need, and how fast we implement it compared to other technologies in the past, says Pissarides. “Unlike previous technologies, automation in the age of artificial intelligence doesn’t give you no-brainer solutions to solve every problem.”
Increased automation may not necessarily lead to an overall increase in unemployment. Earlier this year, IT analyst company Forrester forecast that 12 million jobs will be lost to automation in the wholesale, retail, transport and leisure industries in Europe's largest economies by 2040. But those losses will be almost entirely offset by new jobs in the digital and green economies, and by a decline in the working-age population, it predicted.