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

Comments are closed.

Also within Politics and Policy