More than half of UK’s furloughed jobs at risk of automation

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More than half of furloughed jobs in the UK are at the highest risk of automation as the Covid crisis accelerates workplace technology change, driving up redundancies and inequality across the country, according to a report.

The two-year commission on workers and technology, chaired by the Labour MP Yvette Cooper, found that workers in sectors hit hardest by the pandemic – such as hospitality, leisure and retail – face a “double whammy” as their jobs are at the most risk of being replaced by machines.

The findings from the commission, organised by the Fabian Society and the Community trade union, show that as many as 61% of jobs furloughed in the first half of this year were in sectors where automation is most likely to lead to job losses.

Rapid adoption of technology during the coronavirus pandemic has helped protect jobs as millions of employees work from home. But while employers have used new technologies to survive, the commission formed of academics and trade unionists said many furloughed jobs would not return as a result.

Physical-distancing requirements, remote working and online shopping have driven consumers and firms to make permanent changes to the way they use technology this year, with the pandemic likely to have a lasting impact on business and society. While spending in some physical shops has collapsed, resulting in thousands of job cuts by well-known high street employers, online spending has boomed – benefiting firms with fewer staff and highly automated operations.

According to the commission, 5.9 million of the 9.6 million furloughed workers were in the third of sectors with jobs at highest risk of automation, according to analysis of Office for National Statistics figures.

Urging the government to increase spending on job support and skills to help workers retrain for new employment opportunities, the report said failure to take action would risk exacerbating social disruption and fuel an increase in inequality.

It said low-paid and disadvantaged workers were more likely to work in jobs at high risk of automation, with women, younger and older workers, people from minority ethnic backgrounds and disabled staff most likely to lose out.

The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has promised more funding for jobcentres and training since the pandemic struck, including a £2bn “kickstart” fund to help young people find work. However, the commission said additional steps were urgently required to address the scale of the jobs crisis.

It said free training needed to be offered to all furloughed workers this winter, before the wage subsidy scheme is due to expire at the end of March. Among a wide-ranging set of recommendations, it also said the Treasury should also expand kickstart to support people over the age of 25 and to guarantee people either a job, training or the opportunity to return to full-time education.

“The government is really not looking at this double risk, on how you help the economy through the Covid crisis and the people most affected by these much more rapid changes in technology, to make sure they aren’t left behind and lose out as a result,” Cooper said.

“There’s a real danger of widening inequality, long-term structural unemployment and low pay, as a result of people not being able to benefit from the economic recovery and improvements in technology that we all want to be able to benefit from.”