Business

Conference to focus on '220,000 jobs set to be lost to robots'

Automation poses a threat to more than 220,000 jobs in Northern Ireland according to a report
Gary McDonald Business Editor

MORE than 220,000 workers in Northern Ireland are at high risk of being replaced by robots within the next two decades as the automation of routine tasks gathers pace in a new machine age, a new think tank predicts.

The north stands to be impacted more heavily than the rest of the UK due its higher levels of non-graduate and manufacturing jobs than the average in other regions - yet remains largely unprepared for the potential losses.

That's according to 55 North, a new think tank run by Neil Wilson and which explores economic issues affecting Northern Ireland.

Figures extrapolated from NISRA's Quarterly Employment Survey in March and a PwC report ‘Will robots steal our jobs?' suggest that around a third of region's the current workforce of 745,500 - that equates to 223,674 - are potentially under threat from breakthroughs in robotics and artificial intelligence.

And in some sectors such as manufacturing, nearly half the jobs could go (that would mean 38,000 of the current crop of 81,900 in the north).

The study from 55 North indicates that Northern Ireland is poorly placed to cope and shows that more private sector jobs stand to be affected than public sector jobs, and industries that employ more males (like construction) are at higher risk of being automated.

While automation could address the north's chronic productivity problem, the threat of wide scale unemployment presents a major challenge for policy makers that is not currently being addressed.

The challenges and benefits of automation and will be discussed at a panel event in the Long Gallery at Stormont on Thursday September 21, when speakers include Pete Wilson, an independent management & technology consultant who has been leading business change for over 25 years, and technology journalist Lyra McKee, one of Forbes magazine's '30 under 30'.

Also speaking will be Dr Esmond Birnie, senior economist at Ulster University and a former MLA.

He said: “Those who have considered the possible economic and business impact of automation have sometimes been extremely pessimistic, saying that it will destroy jobs on a massive scale, or very optimistic, saying it is bound to lead to greater wealth and hence more consumption. We will consider and evaluate these contrasting viewpoints.”

Attendees can sign up to attend the event by visiting Eventbrite.com and searching for ‘The Workforce versus the Machines'.

PwC's report earlier this year said 2.25 million jobs were at high risk in wholesale and retailing – the sector that employs most people in the UK – and 1.2 million were under threat in manufacturing, 1.1 million in administrative and support services and 950,000 in transport and storage.

The report said the biggest impact would be on workers who had left school with GCSEs or lower, and that there was an argument for government intervention in education, lifelong learning and job matching to ensure the potential gains from automation were not concentrated in too few hands.

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