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The future of work

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Speech to Vibrant Capital Summit - Dr Neil Bentley, WorldSkills UK CEO

Good morning, everyone.

So, I’ve been asked to talk about the future of work… But of course, looking into the future is no easy task.

Even when armed with powerful statistical models and expert insight, the ability of any of us to confidently predict what will happen tomorrow is no exact science.

On the eve of the US presidential election in November 2016, Princeton University gave Hillary Clinton a 99% chance of being the country’s first female leader…

As I’m sure you may have heard, it’s President Donald Trump who will be visiting the UK in July… When it comes to the world of work, future-gazing is no less fraught.

In 1930 the economist John Maynard Keynes wrote an essay entitled ‘Economic possibilities for our grandchildren’. In it, he envisaged that by now we would all be working 15-hour weeks. If only…

According to the latest data, the average working week today is 42 hours.

The purpose of saying this is not to embarrass one of our most influential economists, but to find the right context for how we think about the future world of work.

You have all, I’m sure, heard about the ‘march of the robots’, the onset of AI and how we are all going to be made obsolete by machines…

I think the reality is more measured – and exciting! 

So, what I’d like to do is talk to you about how I see the future world of work, and how we all should adapt to this change to get the best of everyone’s skills and potential.

First of all, I’d like to introduce you to my organisation, WorldSkills UK.

WorldSkills UK – who we are

At WorldSkills UK, we are responsible for enabling young people in this country to succeed through skills competitions.

Every year, over 3,000 young people compete across the country for a place in Team UK. Team UK is made up of the very best of British in terms of technically skilled young people: games designers, mechanical engineers, chefs, plumbers and welders.

Team UK represents the nation in international skills competitions, we finished in the top 10 – ahead of Germany! – at the Skills Olympics in the UAE last October and we are gearing up for the European championships in Hungary this September.

The skills competitions of the future are going to reflect the workplace of the future.

That’s why, we are developing competitions in cyber security, cloud computing and digital rail to ensure we are keeping pace with the technological change that is happening all around us.

The Future of Work: the trends – digital, AI and robots… 

Change in the workplace is also a fact of history. 

Technological change during the first industrial revolution in the 19th century enabled the mass production of goods, using assembly lines and interchangeable labour processes.

This threatened the jobs of skilled artisan workers who had previously produced goods in their entirety.

In turn this led to the Luddites – protestors who set about vandalising the machinery they viewed as a threat to their livelihoods.

I’m going to suggest that the Luddites are a lesson from history for us not to follow...

We don’t want to get into armed combat with robots…

However, the technological change we are going through and will go through in the years ahead is equally as wide-ranging and challenging as the onset of machinery was in the 1800s.

Digitisation has already opened up new possibilities for collaboration and production and for the sale of goods and services. The internet now enables communication not only between people, but also between things.

The fact that almost 50 billion devices worldwide are internet-enabled presents enormous possibilities for business in the future.

For the digital revolution to continue at the same speed, processing power will be critical, along with developments in bandwidth and data storage capabilities. Just over 30 years ago, less than 1 percent of the world’s technologically stored information was in digital format.

By 2014 it was 99%.

That’s why we at WorldSkills UK see competitions in cloud computing and cyber security as such growth areas for us.

AI is becoming increasingly prevalent in our day-to-day workplace interactions too. 

Applications already use our data to suggest destinations for our next holiday, work out the fastest route to a hotel, and offer restaurant recommendations. In the workplace, AI systems can be used to track performance, monitor breaks and even flag strange employee behaviour.

Robotic technology has made significant advances in recent years.

The latest robots are much more dextrous and capable of performing complex tasks in uncertain environments. For example, General Electric has built a robot capable of climbing wind turbines to carry out routine repairs and maintenance, whilst other robots can now perform complicated medical operations.

Although the speed of technological disruption has fuelled anxieties about whether we are marching towards the ‘end of work’ or the ‘robot age’, the precise speed of automation, and its broader impact, is uncertain.

However, the pace of change is increasing – fast.

But what do these technological advances mean for jobs?

How technological change impacts on the jobs market

PWC estimates that up to 30% of British jobs are at high risk of automation by the 2030s. Its report emphasises that for individual workers, the key differentiating factor is education.

For those with GCSE-level education, the estimated potential risk of automation is as high as 46%, but this falls to 12% for those with degrees.

However, the lesson we learn from technological change is not to fear it, but to embrace it and adapt to it.

Evidence suggests that, although working people have concerns about the impact of technology on job security and pay in particular, they recognise the potential for improving the way we work.

63% of respondents to a YouGov survey support increasing investment in technology at work.

The impacts of technology will be multiple, with the traditional assumption being that jobs based on routine tasks are vulnerable to automation, and non-routine tasks are not.

Developments in AI and Machine Learning mean that this distinction is unlikely to be so clear-cut in the future.

As the capabilities of robotics and AI continue to grow, automation will continue to spread into more complex, varied and dynamic non-routine tasks.

We all, whatever our jobs, need to be ready for the onset of technological change.

Some of the most exciting – and challenging – aspects of change will come in the engineering sector.

Ensuring we are equipped for change – the example of engineering

It’s a sector particularly important for us at WorldSkills UK given that we have competitions in disciplines including mechanical engineering, mechatronics and robotics.

One of the key ways in which we can help young engineers prepare for and deal with the new world is by providing a platform for them to discuss their hopes, fears and aspirations together with industry experts and engineering businesses.

That’s why we are holding roundtables this summer where we will be discussing how we can prepare for the future of digital engineering.

And we want to make sure young people have a voice in this future. One of the things we at WorldSkills UK talk about a lot is the idea of employers being Young People Ready.

This means ensuring that employers are ready, willing and able to engage with young people’s expectations and what want from work in 2018 and beyond.

Of course, young people have a responsibility themselves to be ready for the workplace – and that means having a high awareness of how technology can be a positive in the path to a successful career - as well as the kind of general skills we will need into the next decade and beyond.

Plus ca change: technology advances but the skills we need are timeless 

A recent study from Pearson, NESTA and the Oxford Martin School points the way on general skills. Its findings highlight the importance of higher-order skills such as originality and fluency of ideas.

Skills related to system thinking, such as judgement and decision making, systems analysis and systems evaluation also feature prominently.

Broad-based knowledge, such as English language, administration and management are all associated strongly with occupations projected to see a rise in demand.

These kind of general skills are not only the skills that will equip people well in 10 years’ time; they are also the skills that employers value most highly today.

Formal qualifications are valuable indicators of achievement and ability - but businesses are clear that the biggest drivers of success for young people are attitudes such as resilience, enthusiasm and creativity.

Year after year, the CBI’s annual Skills Survey results show the importance of young people’s attitude to work in determining their job prospects and future success.

Indeed, attitude ranks as the single most important factor for half of businesses when recruiting school and college leavers.

Readiness to learn, effective communication skills and a sufficient capacity to cope with numerical data are key. It is critically important that everyone is helped to develop as fully as possible in these areas.

An preparing the rights attitude is something we strongly believe in at WorldSkills UK. Team UK: exemplars of the skills young people need to succeed now and in the future

This September we will have a 25-strong team heading out to Hungary for the European skills championships.

Each team member has a unique skill, be that 3D games design, mechatronics, mechanical engineering or cyber security.

The chief determinant of success in the competition won’t just be team members’ skills-sets – at the elite level, the difference between leaving with a medal or not all also comes down to having the right mindset to succeed.

The ability to perform under pressure, to adapt when things go wrong and to draw on your teammates to help each other achieve results.

That’s why in recent years, working with colleagues at Loughborough University, home of our Olympians Team GB, we have placed so much emphasis on ensuring that our team members’ attitudes are geared for competition.

Our training camps combine mindset training and team-building tasks that lead to gold-medal winning performances.

These are principles that not only benefit our ability to win medals; they transform young people’s live. And we will be hearing from one of our former competitors in just a moment.

One of our big success stories at the Skills Olympics in Abu Dhabi was a 21-year-old from East Kilbride in Scotland, Betsy Crosbie.

She took home a medal in mechanical engineering and did not let the fact that she was one of only two women (out of 26 total competitors) get in her way.

It wasn’t just the fact that she was a young woman competing and succeeding in a traditionally male- dominated competition that left such an impression.

It was her own personal story of growth through the two-years of training leading up to Abu Dhabi.

When Betsy first joined the squad, she was, and she won’t mind me saying this, shy, timid and lacking in confidence.

Two years of developing the kind of skills that you need for success transformed her.

Today, Betsy is a role model for other young people wanting to follow in her footsteps; and she goes into local schools to encourage them to do so as part of our Skills Champions programme of peer-to-peer role modelling.

She is a positive and powerful example to us all.


So what I want to leave with you here this morning is a sense of the possibilities and positives we can draw from change.

Make no mistake about it, change will be a constant in the workplace of the future.

It’s how we respond to this change that will determine how much benefit we can draw from it.

Amidst all this change it’s easy to get carried away with attention-grabbing headlines that predict the robots taking over and the widespread loss of jobs.

Yes, automation and AI will feature more largely, but highly skilled people will still be needed. The skills that are popular today will, I predict, still be popular in 2028.

Demonstrating the right attitude, to work well under pressure, to communicate well with colleagues and to work together to achieve great results…

These are the future-proof skills that will serve you well whatever career you pursue. Thanks a lot for listening.