IS AUTOMATION DESTINED TO REWRITE ALL OUR FUTURES?
Enhanced productivity requires equal focus on automation and skills
It’s a fact of life; mundane tasks are not something people passionately relish. Yet, the fear of job losses due to automation continues to unsettle workers in the manufacturing sector. While some might fight or shy away from the inevitable, the Government’s release of the Industrial Strategy at the end of November signals the strongest commitment yet to build a better, more productive and sustainable business future for our people and the UK economy.
Like many companies operating in the food and automation markets, we have long advocated that the growth in smart machines and automation will actually be a catalyst for new and more exciting knowledge-based jobs in the future.
When reports are released it creates an element of scaremongering among the workforce. Fact is, robots and smart technologies are filtering into every work environment. For the manufacturing sector, rather than dehumanising people, many of the tools today can free workers from labour intensive and mundane tasks, enabling them to focus on more creative aspects of their job, like problem solving.
Enterprises of all sizes are realising that they can take labour out of their costs and redeploy it elsewhere if they automate. In our view, automation safeguards the roles of the majority, making businesses more efficient and enabling them to maintain and hopefully expand contracts and win more export business through improved quality and production throughput.
No longer can we ignore the shortage of skills. As manufacturers compete harder on price, and business costs are being further compounded by the national living wage, new pension arrangements and loss of European labour, food suppliers are seeking out automated business models that will help them evolve faster and increase their chance of survival. The pledge to enhance productivity will be central to the sector’s future stability.
Right now we are at the tipping point. In order to grow the UK food & drink business, we need to invest in automation, yet not at the detriment of people and skills. Interestingly, a poll conducted last week by The Engineer examined the investment areas that would produce the biggest improvements in manufacturing productivity. Almost two thirds of readers – 58% – voted that investing in skills and training would be the most effective for improving UK industrial productivity. Robotics placed second in the poll – 19% – followed by Industry 4:0 and Big Data.*
There’s no doubt that the future will inevitably look and feel very different to how it does now, both on the factory floor and for the workforce. While certain jobs will be reduced by automation, particularly traditional ‘blue collar’ manufacturing roles, demand for more skilled positions, such as mechanical and project engineers and technicians are on the rise, requiring science, technology, engineering and maths based competencies. One key factor that shouldn’t be overlooked is age. Our UK engineering workforce is getting older. However, the proportion of young workers (aged under 25) has decreased in the last ten years.
There are many other considerations, some very complex, and each will have widespread social and political consequences. A report released in November by thinktank Future Advocacy summarised that certain constituencies in the UK will feel the impact of automation more than others, with high risk constituencies where manufacturing is prominent predicted to be the worst affected. The highest levels of future automation are predicted in Britain’s former industrial heartlands in the Midlands and the north of England, as well as the industrial centres of Scotland, claimed the report. Many of these areas have already suffered from deindustrialisation.
Understandably, for businesses operating in these unemployment hotspots, the fear and potential animosity towards automation within a workforce can be heightened. To address this type of uncertainty there needs to be a joined up approach to automation and workforce skills development with alignment to the educational system, economic labour market needs, the manufacturing workforce and future business agendas.
That’s the gap that the UK’s Industrial Strategy and the creation of the Food & Drink Sector Council hope to plug. By focusing on export, technology, innovation, skills and apprenticeships, the sector is covering all bases in this strategy to increase productivity.
One thing all these reports have in common is highlighting the unequivocal link between workforce morale and productivity. Work should be a source of inspiration. Removing mundane, repetitive and often physical tasks can lead to happier employees, which equate to more productive employees. Businesses can help by doing their bit to support lifelong learning. We also need to do a better job collaboratively of highlighting the exciting career pathways available to young people.
Yes the future is being rewritten, and yes, automation is shaking up our industry. Refusing to accept this change will leave many behind. If automation can assist businesses to survive, increase productivity and create greater human fulfilment, everyone benefits. Surely that’s a good thing?