If you’ve been in an airport recently, you may have noticed new signs promoting future self-boarding technology. Goodbye, it seems, to checking your ticket with a person at the boarding gate.
As a customer, this may conjure images of faster and more convenient travel. But imagine for a second you are an employee of the airline. The sign is a warning. Your employer is trialling a new approach that might just put you out of your job. Every day as you walk past the sign, you are confronted with the insecurity of your work and the looming threat of automation. At the same time, you must deliver for your employer and be engaged in your work, despite your newfound uncertainty.
The airline industry is not the only sector thinking about automation. According to the UK’s Office for National Statistics, 51% of current national administrative government jobs are at some risk of automation.
Even if the overall consequences of automation remain subject to debate, it is clear we need to take greater care in our approach to technology in the workplace. As our airline example highlights, failing to do so could risk alienating staff and upending the labour market. To mitigate downsides, government must be deliberate about how it approaches the practicalities of automation.
We believe this should occur through two mechanisms: the government’s role as a regulator of labour markets and its own position as a major employer.
First, government must focus on improving programmes that help people transition into new roles and careers.
Roles will change. If you’ve ever started in a new position, felt uncertainty in your career, or lost a job, you can understand the gripping anxiety that will accompany any disruption to the status-quo.
It doesn’t need to be this way. As labour economist David Autor wrote in a recent paper, while automation has displaced many jobs, it has also created new ones and started to shift the domains in which humans are most needed. Furthermore, large skill shortages are pervasive across developed economies, making retraining programs all the more important.
Many government agencies already offer or fund retraining services. Unfortunately, as Amy Goldstein’s harrowing history of the closure of Janesville’s General Motors plant shows, these services too often fail citizens. In the US, employers and employees alike are confronted with a confusing maze of retraining programs with onerous requirements and uncertain outcomes. Delivering quality retraining programs, making them easy to access, and helping people persist in retraining is critical. Government must do more to get this right.
Second, government can prompt the labour market to prepare for automation.
Governments could make it clearer whether employers are helping their employees retrain or find new opportunities. For instance, they could publish statistics on retraining programs offered by employers and service providers, the average time it takes former employees of companies to find new positions, and how many employees end up in long-term unemployment after redundancies. This level of transparency would make it easier to identify employers that do not help employees and force them to change their ways.
Further, governments can provide more information on areas of growth in the labour market. This will help individuals make informed decisions about career change. For instance, in the US Skillful uses labour market data to provide more information on the value of training and better match job seekers to the right training and jobs. Job agencies and workforce organisations could help job seekers and employees use this information to evaluate retraining options and new jobs.
Finally, as a major employer, government should set the standard for providing a clear and transparent workforce strategy and ensuring pathways exist for retraining.
With automation on the horizon for an array of government jobs many public servants are likely to be feeling anxious about their future. Governments have an opportunity to visibly embrace the challenge of helping workers redesign their job or move into new careers.
Just like other employers, governments should be transparent about their strategy for automation in the workplace. Government should be able, in many cases, to offer retraining to staff so they can fill other roles. If redundancy is required, government (and employers in general) must work to ensure clear notice is given and employees are helped to think about their future, engage in retraining and stay motivated in their job search. Government departments or agencies that are pursuing automation without a clear strategy would do well to formulate their plans and think about the trade-offs for the organisation, citizens, and the people that currently do the work.
Too often it seems like the current labour market is sending a clear message to employees: ‘we’re trying to automate your job – but please work harder’ (and we don’t always get a please). In the face of this uncertainty it is clear government must intervene to ensure that workers are thought of, empowered and have the highest chance of landing on their feet.