Workers should be helped to prepare for the jobs of tomorrow. Here’s how

Roy Rickhuss

At Community, we are proud of our history. When our industries changed over the last century, we stayed for our members, supporting them to reskill, retrain and find new work. Today we represent our members in new jobs and industries across the UK.

A new kind of change is here. It’s change on a scale that will affect every one of us, and it’s already taking hold. Automation is already taking on routine, repetitive and manual jobs. Artificial intelligence is allowing technology to make decisions and complete complex tasks. These changes are going to fundamentally change the jobs and lives of tomorrow.

But with 80% of the 2030 workforce already working now, it is the workers of today who will need to come to terms with this challenge. That’s why we, with the Fabian Society, set up the Commission on Workers and Technology to investigate the workers’ view of technology change. Helping workers prepare for the future is part of the fabric of our union.

We need a strategy to realise a future where everyone across our great country can work in fulfilling and well-paid jobs, and where change is planned and managed with workers at its heart, not as an afterthought. Our new report sets out a compelling vision for how we can start to build that future.

The jobs that exist today will evolve as automation comes into effect and will require workers to have different skillsets in order to adapt. Getting this right will improve productivity, job quality and pay. Getting it wrong could be devastating to our towns, cities, workplaces and communities.

We will support workers through these changes, as we always have. Where industries change, we will be there with our members to help them transition into new kinds of jobs. Trade unions, like Community, can play a vital role in working with individuals, governments and employers to deliver training and up-skilling.  But more needs to be done to help us all to transition into the jobs of tomorrow.

The Commission on Workers and Technology, chaired by the Rt Hon Yvette Cooper MP, has spent two years researching the impact of technology on workers, visiting workplaces and speaking to hundreds of workers across the UK. Our research culminates in this report, which sets out recommendations for the steps that the government must urgently take to respond to this challenge.

The report we’ve released today has four sections. The first talks about the importance of giving a worker voice in decision-making – that means in workplaces, as well as in the government bodies that create our industrial strategy on a local, sectoral and national level. Governments haven’t done enough to take on board workers’ voices and consult with them as change has happened. We need to be listening to workers in all parts of this country, understanding how they feel about their jobs, skills and futures and creating the spaces for them to come into to shape the direction of our industrial strategy.

The second part of the report explains how we can give workers a fair share in the rewards of technology change. We know that as tasks are automated there is the potential for increased productivity and profits- these gains must be shared. We’ve recommended that pay growth guidelines are developed for workforces, and that unions negotiate a fair share for workers in new technology agreements.

A fair share also means fairly sharing the rewards of automation across the country. We need to act locally – it’s critically important that those parts of this country that feel “left behind” have the investment and long-term thinking that is needed to allow them to develop to their full potential. We believe that the use of devolved powers can help to share the rewards across our country. To that end, the report recommends decentralisation, including to mayoral combined authorities, and new local social partnerships.

The third part of the paper talks about how we can give people a better experience of work. We recommend the creation of good works standards to monitor workplaces against. We want those who work in the least protected sectors – gig work and platform work – to be able to have the protection of trade unions. The protection of trade unions and the power of collective bargaining is crucial to creating and maintaining good jobs.

Finally, we know that we cannot achieve a better future without education to give our workers the skills to take on these new roles, so the fourth part of the report recommends a package of reforms to widen access to education for adults. We want to see the apprenticeship levy reformed to support wider forms of training, and to ask employers to monitor the skills of their workforces, creating plans for reskilling and redeploying existing workers.

We call for local industrial strategies, developed by businesses, trade unions and government, which set out how the right skills training can be delivered to local people. To that end, we’re also proposing that the current network of job centres is reformed so that they can offer skills training to those currently in work. We recommend further funding for the adult education budget and devolving the power to deliver the £3bn already pledged to fund national skills.

We need an industrial strategy that puts people at its heart, leading to a future where everyone across our great country can work in fulfilling and well-paid jobs, and where change is planned and managed with everyone’s interests considered. Today’s report sets out a compelling vision for the ways that we can start to build that future.

The Commission on Workers and Technology is a joint project run by Community and the Fabian Society. You can find out more here.

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