AI and robots may worsen the skills crisis
21 February 2018
DTL understands that there is a growing fear among those in work that robots will sooner or later take over their jobs.
Some people, including such luminaries as Bill Gates and Professor Stephen Hawking, fear things will go further and robots will take over the world if we don't do something about it. Certainly, there is widespread concern about the risks posed by Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the checks that will be necessary to stop AI machines and systems running out of control.
Rise of the robots
Industrial robots have been around for a long time, of course. Robots are starting to make their mark in construction too. There is even one that can lay bricks. However, we still have a desperate shortage of human workers with the skills necessary to keep our utilities and construction sector going. The rise of the robots will undoubtedly have an impact, for example in factories making prefabricated houses, but in other ways, new technology is likely to make the skills crisis worse.
The need for skilled workers
Contrary to general public opinion, the operatives working in trenches, laying cables and making connections to substations are not unskilled labourers but qualified technicians. As is the case with their colleagues working elsewhere in the network, their numbers are dwindling due to an ageing workforce and under investment in training. A decline in the number of foreign operatives is exacerbating the problem.
As these industries become ever more technical, the need for skilled workers is growing. The idea of people working in trenches with robotic arms or assisted by AI with diagnosing electrical faults is exciting, but those people will need to be properly trained to use the technology. Indeed, cyber security specialists say one of the key ways to ensure robots do not get out of hand is to have humans watching their moves.
Britain's vital supplies and infrastructure are seriously threatened by the skills gap, but paradoxically, the ability of technology to alleviate these problems is likely to be hampered by a shortage of trained humans.
There have been some welcome initiatives by government such as Trailblazer apprenticeships, the apprenticeship levy and investment in AI in academia. Meanwhile, in the private sector, we are working with leading employers to develop new kinds of training programmes and strategies to attract young people to engineering, and to equip them with the increasingly technical skills they will need.
DTL endorses technology
At Develop Training, we are using technology ourselves, providing interactive digital courses and equipping trainees with video diaries rather than expecting them to lug heavy paper portfolios to record their work and prove their competence.
Despite all this good work, Britain is falling behind. To give just one example, it is clear the government will miss its original target for smart meters due to a shortage of skilled operatives. That is more embarrassing than calamitous. We may be able to live without smart meters, but we cannot survive without energy and water. Much more must be done to train people for the utilities sector of the future.