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February 6, 2018updated 29 Jun 2022 5:39am

Women to be hit hardest in first waves of automation – PwC

Educators, employers and the government must upskill the workforce to fend off automation job losses.

By Sabrina Dougall

Will robots really steal our jobs? The short answer is yes, a few, but reskilling workers will mean the UK economy is stronger as a result of automation.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and automation technologies is set to boost UK GDP by up to 10% in the next decade, according to a new PwC report into the long-term impact of disruptive technologies. Yet the growth in use of smart robots, drones, AI assistants and self-driving vehicles will also inevitably transform the job market; one in three UK jobs could be impacted by 2035, confirming earlier research by the firm.

On the upside, however, researchers predict job gains could well offset worker displacement, provided investment is kept up in upskilling and retraining the workforce.

John Hawksworth, chief economist at PwC, said: “We don’t believe that automation will lead to mass technological unemployment by the 2030s, any more than it has done in the decades since the digital revolution began.

“In the long run, AI, robotics and related technologies should not only make a significant contribution to UK GDP of up to 10%, but should also generate enough new jobs to broadly offset the potential job losses associated with automation.”

PwC identifies three ‘waves’ of automation between 2018 and the mid-2030s, with women likely to be affected by job losses sooner. In the first phase, named the Algorithmic Wave and covering 2018 until the early 2020s, just 2-3% of jobs could be impacted by automation. Yet beyond the early 2020s and up to 2029, up to one in five jobs are set to be muscled out by disruptive technologies.

Automation of straightforward computational tasks and structured data analysis is already workaday in the finance, information and communications sectors. Though investment globally is steady in emerging technologies, nascency precipitates uncertainties and hinders adoption. For this reason, the impact on the job market will go almost unnoticed during the period 2018-2023.

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Yet the impact of automation on jobs will be much more visible by the mid 2020s, which the report named the Augmentation Wave. Analysts expect that automation of repetitive tasks such as form-filling and information exchange for continuous technical support will have reached full maturity during the 2020s. Furthermore, aerial drones and robots will be optimized for statistical analysis of unstructured data in semi-controlled environments such as a warehouse during this period.

With the advent of improved networks, 5G, smart cities and connected vehicles could well become the norm by the end of the 2030s, termed the Autonomy Wave by PwC. Analysts foresee a rise in automation of heavy lifting and tasks involving human handiwork coming into full maturity across the economy in twelve years’ time; 30% of jobs will be displaced by 2035. By this stage, 34% of male workers are set to be impacted, compared with 26% of women.

Globally, transportation and storage are the industries most likely to see the highest rates of job losses: over 50% by the 2030s. Manufacturing could see 45% of workers displaced by the final wave of disruption, with construction followed by administrative & support service, then wholesale and retail trade next to face staff displacement.

As a result, state investment in upskilling the workforce will become increasingly crucial. “Less well educated workers will generally bear more of the costs of automation, potentially widening further existing income and wealth inequalities,” the report said. To offset this, analysts advise the government, together with employers and educators, to facilitate an increase in the adaptability and skills among the low wage workforce.

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Predictions are based on what technology could make possible, but this is not a cast-iron guarantee of what will definitely take place. Law, regulation and business practice could all alter the course of digital disruption. “Just because something can be automated in theory does not mean it will be economically or politically viable in practice,” researchers noted.

“AI technology is getting more sophisticated every day and businesses need to understand how, where and when their people are likely to be affected in the future” said Euan Cameron, UK Artificial Intelligence leader at PwC, “Those that understand the risks and opportunities can start upskilling their people and adapting their businesses, rather than simply reacting when it’s too late.”

The research analysed the tasks and skills involved in the jobs of over 200,000 workers across 29 countries, including over 5,500 workers in the UK.

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