NEWS
30/05/2018 07:31 BST | Updated 30/05/2018 10:08 BST

This City Could Lose A Third Of Its Jobs To Robots - Here's Its Plan To Fight Back

'You still need knowledge of how to weld to programme a welding robot.'

Tom McCarten

When Ryan Trotter left school at 16, he drifted along doing odd jobs. He had a goal, he just had no idea how to realise it. Gaming was his great passion. Since I was in school I always played video games and always had the idea of creating my own, but I never knew any way to put myself through courses,” he says.

Working in the games industry seemed an impossible leap. That all changed when he enrolled on a free course at 26 and got “a whole new direction”.

Trotter is one of the many people – from schoolchildren to call centre workers and retail staff – who have attended Sunderland Software City, an incubator hub for software, tech and creative enterprises based in the heart of the city in the north of England.

Through the hub’s Go Reboot course, Trotter joined participants of all ages and skill levels to be introduced to coding, design and tech-related exercises. He received guest talks and visited local technology firms to learn about different job roles available, and how and when he could best enter the sector.

He’s now enrolled at Sunderland College studying games design with ambitions to go to university. “If it wasn’t for Go Reboot, I would never have gone to college,” he says.

Ryan Trotter
Ryan Trotter is studying games design at Sunderland College.

Recent news on how automation will affect UK jobs suggests schemes like this are essential. The Centre for Cities report, which was published earlier this year, found that by 2030 nearly a third of jobs in parts of the north-east of England are predicted to be lost to the ‘rise of the robots’. 

Sunderland, along with fellow north-east towns Wakefield and Mansfield, is one of the UK areas predicted to be hardest hit, with 29% of jobs predicted to go in the next 12 years.

The effect risks increasing the gap between the poorer north of the country and the wealthier south. The Government has been criticised for not doing enough to prepare for this - an IPPR report last year said a lack of oversight could exacerbate inequality.

Jobs particularly at risk include retail cashiers, sales assistants, warehouse roles, and administrative and customer service roles such as call centre workers. These are being changed and displaced by increasingly sophisticated machines.

Paul Swinney, head of policy and research at Centre for Cities, says low skilled jobs such as these - most commonly found in the north - could go, while high skilled jobs, which are concentrated in the south of England, are at lower risk. 

“The economic divides that we’ve seen widen across the country in the last couple of decades will continue to widen as a result [of automation],” Swinney says.

Yet in Sunderland, where Trotter studies, the mood is not bleak.

The city has been hailed by the president of TechUK, the body representing nearly 1,000 UK tech companies, as leading the way for digital.

“For every job that’s potentially lost, there’s a job potentially created,” says Jill McKinney, head of skills and training at Sunderland Software City, “and what people need to do really is just embrace that. We just need to have the right mindset and be open to change, which is all it is really.”

Her organisation helps school and university students, and also focuses on people older than 50 who want to develop their skills.

It liaises with industry leaders in the north-east to find out what skills need to be developed in a bid to help meet the growing demand to fill the new positions that the “rise of the robots” could create.

kokouu via Getty Images
Call centre jobs could be affected by automation.

McKinney says her aim is to show that tech and digital are sectors like any other, with skills you can learn, not something to fear. “We demystify the sector. We remove the scaremongering and we talk to them about real terms and what automation actually means,” she explains.

Most people who complete the Go Reboot programme have gone into programming roles and graphic design, McKinney says. Some have also gone into further and higher education onto courses including games design and computer science.  

WPA Pool via Getty Images
The Northern Spire, a new bridge over the River Wear in Sunderland, is part of a transport plan to help attract new jobs and investment.

McKinney recalls one course participant, a care worker, who attended the programme. He was struggling to find an opportunity in tech, she says, but has since gone on to set up his own gaming businesses with two people who also took the course. 

Her approach - that the ‘rise of the robots’ should be embraced, not feared - is echoed by Roger O’Brien, from the University of Sunderland’s Institute for Automotive and Manufacturing Advanced Practice. “The workforce doesn’t become totally redundant or replaced, the skillset changes for the workforce and the skillset changes to support the replacement in technology,” he tells HuffPost UK.

For example, he says, welders may upskill to become robot programmers: “You still need that knowledge of how to weld to programme a robot.”

Some reports support this brighter outlook: analysis from Deloitte in 2015 states that jobs created through technology have added £140 billion to the UK’s economy in new wages over the last 15 years. While it contributed to the loss of 800,000 lower-skilled jobs, it found there is “strong evidence” it has helped to create nearly 3.5 million new higher-skilled ones in their place. 

LEON NEAL via Getty Images
Workers at the Sunderland Nissan plant.

But Craig Dawson, chair of the Trade Union Congress’ Young Workers Forum, strikes a note of caution, telling HuffPost UK he is concerned that automation was not at the forefront of businesses’ minds. “It’s probably quite damning that people aren’t as concerned about it as they should be.”

He says the rise in use of apps such as Uber and Deliveroo, which are transforming how we interact with industries such as transport and hospitality, should be a reminder that there are changes happening all around us.

Unions and management need to work together around the country, he adds, to “make sure that people whose jobs are at risk are given other opportunities, retrained and able to move elsewhere in the business”.

Swinney, from the Centre for Cities, says that there are three things we can do to prepare for a future of working with robots, under the slogan of “Prepare, adapt, compensate”.

Prepare - making sure there’s education in schools that is relevant to jobs that are going to be around in 10 to 20 years’ time

Adapt - encouraging people who are already in the workforce to think about lifelong learning and update the skills they have

Compensate - to have a welfare net in place to support people who lose their jobs, as well as investing in retraining and reskilling the workforce.

Paul Carbert, from the North East Chamber of Commerce, is also upbeat. He points out that the north-east has an ageing population, more so than other regions. While the UKCES Working Futures research predicts that by 2022, the number of manufacturing jobs in the north-east will fall by 9,000, Carbert says that during the same period, 36,000 people working in the sector are expected to retire, creating 27,000 vacancies.

But he stresses that investment in education - the “compensate” element of the Centre for Cities report - is essential.

“The policy response from regional and national government should be to invest in skills and training for young people, and make funding available for retraining older workers or those looking for a career change,” Carbert says.

Julie Elliott, MP for Sunderland Central, says she was surprised, but not concerned, by the Centre for Cities study, and is confident that her constituency is doing enough to prepare for the expected rise in automation. The Labour MP told HuffPost UK that it’s inevitable that automation will take jobs out of sectors such as manufacturing, “just as it has done for the last 50 years”.

“This isn’t new, everyone knows automation is happening,” she said. “Automation in manufacturing has been happening for years, but you’ve just got to adapt and be ready. The way you keep ahead of it is to be adaptable and to attract more highly skilled jobs.”

One way of doing this, she said, is through Sunderland’s International Advanced Manufacturing Park which is currently being built and plans to attract automotive and manufacturing businesses to its 150 hectare site.

It is expected to create more than 5,000 jobs in the north-east by 2027 and bring in excess of £400 million of private sector investment to the region. “It will help underpin the continued success of the automotive and manufacturing sectors in the north-east and across the UK,” its website states.

Nigel Roddis / Reuters
Workers preparing doors for the Qashqai car at the Nissan car plant in Sunderland.

Whatever happens, optimists like Mckinney are confident the region’s future is to be working alongside robots, not losing out to them. She uses the examples of the Nissan car manufacturing plant in Sunderland, which employs 7,000 people.

“Originally they had people working on the line who would manually do every element of building the car when the factory first opened 20 years ago. Now you go into their plant and it is robots that are working in there.

“But for every robot, there is a person that manages that element of it.”