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Why our public sector workforce must be ready for the rise of the robots

By Jackie Henry

It is a familiar trope of all sci-fi films that, whatever version of the future they imagine, some of the jobs done by humans have been replaced by a computer, robot or some form of advanced technology.

On a similar theme, Deloitte has forecast that one in six public sector jobs could be at risk of so-called "automation" in the next 15 years. The firm's research found that up to 861,000 public sector jobs in the UK - 16% of the overall workforce - could be automated by 2030.

In Northern Ireland there are about 206,000 public sector jobs, meaning almost 33,000 jobs here are at risk of being replaced by advances in software, systems or devices.

It's a significant figure and of particular interest in this part of the world as Northern Ireland has the highest proportion of public sector employees amongst the UK nations - some 25 per cent of all employees work in the public sector.

The research builds on Deloitte's work with Oxford University on job automation and was included in the firm's The State of the State report - an annual analysis by Deloitte alongside the think tank Reform on the state of public finances and the challenges facing public services.

The topic seemed particularly relevant as the report launch in Belfast last week came less than 48 hours after Bank of England Governor Mark Carney warned that, alongside the great benefits of technological progress in terms of lifting people out of poverty, every technological revolution "mercilessly destroys jobs and livelihoods" before new types of jobs emerge.

The Governor, in a speech in Liverpool, noted that the current "hollowing out of many middle-class services jobs" through machine learning and global sourcing is the same process that saw certain jobs made obsolete in the industrial revolution and, years later, the displacement of manufacturing by service industries.

Deloitte's work has shown that all sectors of the UK economy will be affected by automation in the next two decades, with 74% of jobs in transportation and storage, 59% of jobs in wholesale and retail and 56% of manufacturing jobs having a high chance of being automated.

When we talk about "automation" it inevitably leads to headlines about the "rise of the robots" but we are not anticipating a scenario where 33,000 people are made redundant in one fell swoop and replaced by machines. In reality, automation tends to be a gradual replacement of functions that are overtaken by more efficient solutions, not mass displacement.

For example, it was only a few decades ago that every major office had a typing pool of secretaries using typewriters to draft every communication, where now we all use PCs, tablets and smartphones for emails and instant messages. If you go back even further to a time before alarm clocks, there were people employed as "knocker uppers" whose job was to go around town knocking on people's doors to wake them up in the morning! Innovation and forward progress is relentless.

Today, across all sectors of the economy, rapid technological advances mean that repetitive and predictable tasks are increasingly undertaken by robotics - either in the form of software or devices. The public sector is no different.

In fact, the public sector is more resistant to automation than other sectors of the economy, with a higher numbers of roles in areas such as education and caring that require personal interaction or complex thinking. But Deloitte calculates that gradual automation of some services could still lead to a reduction of up to £17bn in UK public sector wage costs by 2030, with those in administrative and operative jobs most likely to be replaced by new systems, software or apps.

At a time when budgets are under strain at Westminster and Stormont, this should be seen as a good thing. Automation has significant potential to support cost reduction, to help meet citizens' expectations of public services, to free up real estate, to save staff time and to improve productivity.

There may be some people who find they are modern day "knocker uppers" made obsolete by a new system that removes the need for human interaction. But many will have an opportunity to re-train or transfer skills across to new types of roles that will emerge as old jobs disappear.

Many of the jobs our young people will be doing in 10 years don't actually exist yet. But it is important that we act now to prepare ourselves for change, developing new skills among those young people and anticipating how technology might impact on the jobs we take for granted today.

The robots might not be coming to take our jobs, but automation is only going to increase as we demand greater access, efficiency and ease of use from our public services. Technology marches on faster than we are sometimes ready for, but if we are prepared then there are real economic benefits to be gained.

Jackie Henry is senior partner at Deloitte in Belfast

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