The future of employment in Wales

David Jones says technology advances will change the shape of jobs in Wales forever.

What will your child do when they grow-up ?

Which Welsh industries will provide the high quality jobs that politicians strive for ?

High Quality Jobs – That’s a phrase which we hear too much of these days. Murco, the West Wales refinery is set to lose 4,000 High Quality Jobs. By contrast, Texas-based AlertLogic is setting-up its European operations in Cardiff and creating over 100 High Quality Jobs.

“High quality jobs” is generally taken to mean well-paid and permanent jobs, in industries that are safe from outsourcing to cheap labour in India, China and Eastern Europe. The best High Quality Jobs are surely Lawyers and Doctors – After all which Welsh parent could possibly be disappointed with son or daughter becoming a Doctor or Lawyer?

Wales has been buffeted by decades of industrial change – The most totemic being the overnight destruction of the South Wales mining industry and with it so much of Wales’ Valleys communities. But mining sits on a stream of other industrial decline, which includes Steel, textiles, and electronic assembly.

The more recent industrial shift has created 1,000’s of Welsh jobs in call centre’s. Maybe not “high quality”, but large-scale and located in areas to meet local employment needs, ideal for a young and less-skilled work-force.

But we would be doing a fatal disservice to the future employment of Wales if we try and look down-stream to the next genre of industries, because the pattern which causes this disruption in employment is both predictable and accelerating, and will eventually be a threat to very safest of jobs – Doctors and Lawyers.

The twin causes of job destruction are globalisation and technology.

Globalisation usually means having someone else doing the same thing that we do but cheaper. The two largest UK industries struck down by globalisation have seen textile jobs shifting to India and manufacturing jobs to China. Globalisation is unstoppable, largely predictable and manifested in Wales by the loss of Panasonic, Bosch, Hoover and Hitachi.

Technology is a more insidious and destructive force. The UPM paper mill in Shotton is closing, with potentially 130 jobs lost. Local AM, Carl Sargeant called the news “an absolutely devastating blow for Deeside, Flintshire and North Wales”. But, unlike globalisation, these jobs are not moving to other plants (UPM is also closing plants in France and Finland) rather, all of these job losses are caused by the huge drop in newspaper readership, which is, as we all know, due to the shift of news publishing to the internet.

Politicians can’t control Globalisation or Technology. They may prefer jobs and industries which are aligned with their policies – A common plea is for Green Jobs – but as was shown by UPM – they should be careful what they wish for, as it was one of the largest recyclers in Wales, processing 640,000 tonnes every year, and it’s closure is because of the ultimate eco-friendly resource, as the internet doesn’t require any paper.

But what Politicians must try to do is predict where the future shift in Technology will lead. A few weeks ago I gave evidence as the Assembly’s Enterprise and Business committee as Deputy Chair of the ICT Sector Panel, along with Chairs of two other Panels – Creative Industries and Financial / Professional Services. The key theme we all discussed was how the accelerating changes from advancing digital technologies (of which the internet is just one part) will not just replace low-skilled jobs, but increasingly middle-level jobs and that sacred cow, “High Quality Jobs”.

We are all familiar with computers replacing clerical jobs. In the last 10 years over a million Secretaries have disappeared from employment, replaced by email and on-line services, not by cheaper staff in India.

There is now a build-up of research suggesting that a large middle-range of employment is also at threat of replacement by digital technology. At the very lower levels of earnings, jobs like care-workers and hairdressers will be safe (it’s just not worth building a robot to perform these highly complex tasks) – And at the very highest levels, jobs that require the most creative thinking will be OK too, but any jobs that can be automated by computers or robots will be lost.

A few weeks ago The Daily Telegraph suggested that over the next 20 years up to 35% of Britain’s jobs will be replaced by emerging technology. They say that the “safe” level of lower earnings threshold could be £30,000. That equates to 10 million jobs lost and never returning.

But even that dire prediction could be low – as it’s based on the existing technology assumptions. How long before road haulage is replaced with automated trucks, based on the Google driverless car? Clerical work has almost entirely disappeared from the private sector, the only remaining jobs are to be found in the public sector, but as the recent computerisation of the DVLA’s tax disc in Swansea has shown, even those are under threat.

Which leaves Doctors and Lawyers safe? Maybe not. There are already complex software systems which give better diagnosis of disease than many Doctors, and create better legal agreements than many lawyers.

The jobs of tomorrow will be unrecognisable; they will involve either working in a care environment at low-levels of pay, or work alongside robots and technology.

Get ready Wales, the employment of the future is coming fast – Skill-up or get-out.

David Jones is an experienced technology entrepreneur and Deputy Chair of the Welsh Government ICT Sector Panel. He tweets at @djcardiff

5 thoughts on “The future of employment in Wales

  1. A fascinating topic David and an issue that is likely to have a huge impact and in not too distant future on most developed societies.

    Somehow I do not think Wales can provide the lead and inspire the world through example of governance that is capable of creating a fair society that can work and exist in parallel with the growth of artificial intelligence that will take most of our jobs.

    In Wales and to my thinking everything done in the last 15 years by Welsh Government is aimed at revision of history, elevation of sectarianism and privileged classes, whilst the ‘Global World’ is looming large elsewhere but invisible in Wales.

    Perhaps we should aim to be the first in delegating governance to artificial intelligence algorithms that could replace our politicians especially in Cardiff Bay!?

  2. “Skill up or get out” – to what? With a world population heading for 10 Billion or more and job opportunities being eliminated daily by technological innovation? What USP can Wales offer?
    The jobs of tomorrow will be unrecognisable because they will no longer be based on wages for time spent following instructions. Imagine instead a society where everyone receives an unconditional basic income whether they have a “job” or not. Thousands of carers, many of whom are currently unpaid, would be lifted out of poverty. The DWP “benefits” scheme could be drastically cut back and it would be much easier for new enterprises to get off the deck, with no initial wages bill but a profit sharing scheme instead. Everyone benefits.
    This is clearly not something we could introduce at the Wales level, but I would hope that organisations like the IWA would see it as something to be taken seriously at the UK and European level.

  3. I welcome this attempt to look forward and to understand what the future means for the present, but I can’t overlook the rather simplistic theory of globalisation used here. Globalisation as we know it is not an organic process, nor is it un-contentious – it is driven by people’s habits as consumers as well as producers. More importantly, the system of exchanging goods is manipulated by vested interests. It may have slipped out of the news agenda recently, but the global financial system remains deeply flawed and without serious intervention, will not only cause further periodic crashes, but will undermine the further spread of the benefits that market systems can potentially bring.

    In Wales, and the UK in general, many people seem to think that they have had to sit back and watch while globalisation has changed their lives. Not to downplay any of the hardships that people have experienced through the loss of certain industries, but we have all been perfectly happy to take the benefits of a global economic system. We expect goods to be cheap and plentiful. We expect services to operate in such a way that no firm can survive without accessing either cheaper labour markets or technology. We expect foreign firms to invest in Wales (Bosch, Hitachi et al.) but somehow don’t anticipate that they might one day leave. We have (until recently) expected to access vast reserves of capital to finance home buying that, frankly, many could not afford. Most frustratingly of all, we expect to utilise the free movement of labour when it suits us, but to reject it, and the people who live by it, when it does not.

    Why does this matter? Because it demonstrates that another way is possible if some of the habits that consumers have developed were to change. Hardly a new idea, but one that could have huge implications in the coming century. So rather than sit back and wait for a robot to steal your job (because not everyone can ‘skill up’), think instead about what you buy and where/who you buy it from.

  4. This article addresses the big challenge politicians are ignoring: population is growing at a time when the need for a large workforce is decreasing, and the advance of technology is speeding up the rate of that decrease.

    Yet it is a mistake to view globalisation and technology purely in negative terms. They are opportunities as well as threats. The future belongs to the nations, regions, businesses, and individual entrepreneurs who can grasp that.

    In principle there is no reason why Wales could not be among the winners. Wales has provided more than her fair share of high technology pioneers – the internet itself could be described as a Welsh invention thanks to Donald Davies – but nearly all of them have done their most significant work outside Wales.

    Attempts to predict the future direction of technology are famously unreliable, so a 1970s style ‘picking winners’ strategy is the last thing Wales needs. What we should be doing is building a true enterprise culture from the ground up.

    A slash and burn attitude to bureaucracy would be a good place to start.

  5. Firstly a disclaimer my background is Electronics Research and Development in a commercial environment first at Sony Advanced Technology Division at Oxford and more recently over the last 12 years as a consultant to high tech startups such as Clearspeed, Anadigm and the Sony projects of late. I was also responsible for bringing the Raspberry Pi to Sony Pencoed. So given this background I would strongly suggest that the high value jobs of now and the future are most definitely in Research and Development of all types in all disciplines and in all markets. Whether it be food science, life-science, engineering of all disciplines and cross disciplines, ICT, investments funds, robotics, space systems the list is endless. Wales spends less than 1.2% of GDP on R&D and Switzerland spends 3%. We must increase our spend on R&D which means investing in our people and capital equipment. We must increase this activity in Wales and not only be a manufacturer and exporter of note [ which to some degree we are]. It is these jobs that will secure our future. Day to day Lawyers and doctors will be in time replaced by sophisticated software systems but those who design the machines that design the machines will flourish.

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