How can we Prepare for the Changes Automation brings to the Workplace?

Featured story
"Everyone must seek out new skills, roles, and experiences that equip us for a more automated future, and the role of employers is to support this and set up the structures that make lateral and diagonal career moves easier." - David Hardman

A new industrial revolution has started. As in earlier waves of change, many workers will experience disruption, whether through losing their jobs, or in being redeployed. It may even be the case that the level of disruption this time will be greater and quicker than before.

A 2017 policy brief from G20 Insights on accelerating labour market transformation highlights the importance of conveying a motivating and unifying picture of where we want to be, and presenting a grand vision of the future. Governments around the globe have recognised this, and this week the UK Government has published its Industrial Strategy White Paper setting out its ambitions for capitalising on this revolution and putting the UK at the forefront of innovation.

In a recent Innovate UK expert panel on automation, Rolls Royce’s Global Director of Manufacturing highlighted the need for organisations to have a strategic plan, with a leadership behind it, to understand the consequences of the changes underway, and evolve the organisation progressively ensuring there’s no sharp pain.


This video explores how rail can harness greater automation responsibly and sustainably.

This starts with a clear understanding of the future skills gap in a more automated railway.

Firstly, more advanced technical skills will be needed. ACAS, in its paper Mind Over Machines: New technology and employment relations, draws on lessons from three case studies (Siemens Congleton, Jaguar Land Rover, Whittington NHS Trust), and concludes that many jobs which would previously have been medium-skilled, clerical work, might increasingly be carried out by higher-skilled workers using more advanced tools. For instance, managers from Siemens describe how future roles for shop floor workers will be different, focused on the interpretation, maintenance and improvement of mechanical systems.

Secondly, non-technical skills will become much more valuable. The World Economic Forum (WEF) estimates the relative importance of technical skills in the mobility industries will be lower in 2020 than it was in 2015 (the time of the survey), whereas cognitive abilities and skills like complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, people management, emotional intelligence, judgment and decision-making, are all expected to be more important in 2020.

Thirdly, more diversity in the workforce will be needed to ensure the right skills are accessed by industry. The National Skills Academy for Rail (NSAR) estimates that a skills shortage will occur in rail unless the industry invests over the next 10 years.


Digital technologies, automation techniques, management excellence and data analysis will be in demand, and NSAR has been tasked to set up the rail industry’s Strategic Resource Forecasting Model, to provide skills intelligence and monitor progress.

Coordinating industry, unions and government involvement

Communicating and engaging with employees to involve them in the transition is crucial. Successful involvement requires that the roles of industry, unions and government be specified and understood.

ACAS cites academic research suggesting that mutual trust and union support is more likely to occur where there has been a long history of mature collective bargaining. The contributing experts argue that union involvement should occur at the earliest stages. In Germany, the new Industry 4.0 White Paper recommends a vital role for trade unions in reaching agreements with employers around the use and limits of new technology. Deutsche Bahn and the Railway and Transport Union (EVG) are leading the way with negotiations over a ‘Collective Agreement 4.0’ to govern the way in which their workers will be affected by future trends.

Carl Frey’s report for the G20 - The future of jobs and growth: making the digital revolution work for many - argues that the role of governments is to support the reallocation process by providing additional incentives for businesses to invest for new job creation, while reducing existing legal barriers to job mobility.

Facilitating redeployment

People will be more positively disposed to the prospect of their roles (or parts of those roles) being taken over by automation if they have the opportunity for redeployment into a new role. A survey by Infosys found that 80% of employers that had replaced, or were planning to replace, roles with technology would retrain or redeploy those who are displaced.

A number of case studies of redeployment are available, though not necessarily related specifically to automation. The NHS has operated a London Redeployment Service to assist with its restructuring. As some organisations are closed down and new ones started up, the service enables staff to find opportunities outside of their current organisation. In this way, the NHS itself avoids making unnecessary redundancy payments whilst retaining skilled staff. During a period of budget cuts, Sunderland City Council used an automated assessment and matching process to measure the strengths and talents of affected workers and find vacancies in the organisation that required those strengths and talents.

Governments could also help. Because new jobs often emerge in different locations from the ones where jobs are made redundant and low-skilled workers often do not have the financial means to move, Carl Frey’s report for the G20 proposes providing relocation vouchers for workers moving from contracting to expanding regions.

Redeployment will not always be possible, of course, but here the government can help too. One proposal is to introduce a universal basic income. Advocates of this idea argue that its administrative simplicity makes it more efficient than the existing system of benefits (minimum wage, job seeker’s allowance, income support and housing benefit) and would offer protection to the increasing numbers working in an insecure labour market.

Universal basic income schemes are being trialled around the world, including in the Netherlands and Finland. The Finnish government has launched an experiment in which 2,000 unemployed people between the ages of 25 and 58 receive a guaranteed sum – a ‘basic income’ – of €560 (£470) a month for two years. It replaces their unemployment benefit, but they will continue to receive it whether or not they find work. In the UK, the Scottish Government is considering pilot schemes in Glasgow and Fife.

Reskilling and life-long learning

Very large numbers of workers in the UK will need major reskilling in the coming years to meet the demands of a much more automated economy. Furthermore, as young new entrants to the workforce make up a declining proportion in countries like the UK where the population is aging, reskilling existing workers is essential.

Trade unions and professional associations may have an important role to play in this process according to WEF in their white paper Accelerating Workforce Reskilling for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Where employees feel their skills are insufficient, they may be reluctant to report this directly to their employers. Trade unions may be in a better position to gather such information and to help inform and shape opportunities. There are already over 26,000 dedicated Union Learning Reps who help members ‘explore learning, develop skills, achieve qualifications and promote life-long learning opportunities within the workplace’. This is done with the support of a government-supported Union Learning Fund, established in 1998.

Lessons from AT&T

US telecoms provider AT&T found that 100,000 of its 240,000 workers in 2013 were in roles that the company probably wouldn’t need in a decade. As it anticipated to replace 75% of its hardware with computer-operated software systems by 2020, a considerable skills gap was identified in the areas of cloud-based computing, coding and data science. AT&T launched a programme called ‘Workforce 2020’, which aimed at reskilling 140,000 employees for new roles. This included:

Significant investment in reskilling

  • AT&T has spent $250 million on employee education and professional development programs and more than $30 million on tuition assistance annually. AT&T refunds all the tuition when a course is successfully finished. The company offers up to $8,000 in annual tuition aid per employee for degrees and nanodegrees, with a lifetime cap of $25,000 for undergraduate degrees and $30,000 for graduate degrees.

Simplifying and standardising role structures for job mobility

  • AT&T consolidated 250 roles across the company into 80. The goal was to radically simplify and standardise role structures to increase job mobility and foster the development of interchangeable skills.

Providing integrated career tools and platforms

  • AT&T created an online system called ‘Career Intelligence’, which allows an employee to surf through possible alternative jobs, see what skills are required, how many positions are available, investigate whether the segment is projected to grow or shrink, and view the potential salary range.

Developing partnerships between industry and universities for retraining certifications and nanodegrees

  • AT&T developed partnerships with Udacity and the Georgia Institute of Technology for online courses, certifications, and degree programs. By May 2016, employees had taken more than 1.8 million emerging-technology courses. Curated course bundles created by Udacity, “nanodegree” programs deliver training and certification in high-demand technical specialties, such as software engineering, coding, and web development.

As a result, half of all technology management roles were filled by staff who had undertaken the retraining and 47% of all promotions went to the reskilled staff.

And so?

Also for rail, as for any other industry, what really matters is how we adapt technology for the benefit of all people and how we minimise adverse effects on the workforce. The future may mean workers will need to see themselves less as being on a corporate ladder and more as being within a ‘corporate lattice’ which supports lateral and diagonal career moves, as well as ascending ones. In this context everyone must seek out new skills, roles, and experiences, and it will be the role of employers to set up the structures that make such movements possible.

In the next article will close this series on automation considering the insight gather and how the rail industry can act on it.

Haven’t found what you’re looking for?
Get in touch with our expert for more information
Cookies help us improve your website experience.
By using our website, you agree to our use of cookies.