It’s a fact: technology and in particular automation is making jobs obsolete, with a vast range of administrative and manual roles due to be automated over the coming years.

A recent study by PwC warned that almost a third of UK jobs are under threat from artificial intelligence, in particular those in wholesale, retailing, manufacturing, administrative, support services and transport. Oxford University research has found that 35% of the UK labour market is at high risk of losing their jobs to automation within the next two decades.

© DARPA

The logical next step, then, is to discuss how we prepare for it. One obvious answer would be to encourage those within the most ‘at threat’ sectors to retrain, acquiring more in-demand new skills. This is a move that could go some way to helping close the much-vaunted ‘skills gap’ within the tech sector.

It’s an approach that has gradually been growing in popularity. Google has said it will spend $1 billion funding projects that provide training to people who lack digital skills. In October Cisco announced it will train 250,000 people in the UK by 2020 – although much of this will be delivered within schools, and so won’t help retrain workers already part-way through their careers.

Last month a government-commissioned report called for a million workers to be ‘reskilled’ over the next five years, via a scheme co-funded by the public and private sector.

It isn’t clear precisely how this will be delivered. If retraining is provided solely by the private sector, it risks being patchy.

The government shows little appetite to take on a project of this scale, but it should step up, according to Rurik Bradbury, head of research and communications at bot platform company LivePerson.

“First and foremost, the UK government needs an action plan to identify, agree upon and outline measures that will support a mass-retraining initiative. It needs to partner with major employers and advertise these training and education programs to develop skills geared toward industries that will be around longer term – and make sure staff are aware of them,” he says.

Jim Bowes, founder and CEO of creative tech agency Manifesto, agrees. "The government needs to have a clear plan for how the UK will become a leader in technology over the next 20 years," he says.

"Schools and the government also have a role to play to ensure that the skills and the understanding that is needed to cope with these changes is reflected in what is being taught within our schools," he adds. 

There is an interim ‘pain period’ that happens every time the speed of technology and automation excludes certain citizens from economic participation, but this one will be especially severe, according to Bradbury.

“The UK government will need to be involved to reduce the short-term pain and negative repercussions,” he adds.

What’s often missing from the debate is how retraining will be funded. During the party conference in September, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn proposed a ‘robot tax’ whereby companies that profit from replacing humans with technology pay more tax.

It’s one solution that has also been suggested by Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates. It’s popular with the UK public: 57% agreed with the statement ‘if they’re replacing the role of a person, the company owning the robot should be taxed the same’, according to a survey of 1,000 working Brits conducted by software company FreeAgent.

There seems to be a high level of consensus that one way or another, private companies that benefit from automation should pay towards retraining.

“It’s in employers’ interests to upskill their workforce and remain competitive, so they should contribute their fair share. The government can contribute by promoting, and ultimately subsidising, modern approaches to employee retraining that will adequately prepare the population for the jobs of tomorrow - it’s in the national interest,” says Andy Parker, UK growth manager at Udacity, a company that provides ‘nanodegrees’.

The question that remains is how the government best goes about extracting funds from these companies, figures out which skills will be most in demand in future, and helps to allocate funding to retrain the workforce.

It’s a question that badly needs answering, as soon as possible.  

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