Robot cafe in South Korea

Covid-19 accelerating automation; hospitality and manufacturing hardest hit

Image credit: REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

A report from the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce (RSA) has examined the impact of accelerated automation amid the coronavirus pandemic on the labour market, concluding that jobs in hospitality and manufacturing may be hardest hit.

The coronavirus pandemic and the measures taken to manage it have pushed sectors such as aviation and live arts and entertainment events to the brink, with many people working in these sectors forced to reconsider their futures.

According to the RSA, the coronavirus pandemic is accelerating automation. This “rise of the robots” is largely motivated by a need to reduce Covid-19 transmission by minimising human contact, but also increasing consumer acceptance of online shopping and online activities (e.g. Zoom exercise classes) and the cost of labour under pandemic conditions (machines can work in close proximity to each other and do not require sick pay).

Examples of automation becoming more widespread during the pandemic include cashier-free shopping systems such as Amazon Go and Sainsbury’s SmartShop (sales using the latter doubled within six weeks during the pandemic); “touchless hospitality” in hotels (largely deployed in East Asia), and a growing use of autonomous robots for packing, cleaning and security tasks.

According to the report, the equivalent of five years of digital transformation have occurred since the start of the pandemic in sectors such as retail, where online sales have been boosted.

This rapid shift to automation will present most risk to industries with the highest levels of furlough take-up, with hospitality and manufacturing workers hit hardest. People working in sports and recreation are also at high risk. These findings were based on HMRC data on furlough take-up; estimates of changes in economic output; ONS analysis on automation risk, and analysis of the Annual Population Survey.

The RSA said that it hopes their report can help policymakers identify which groups of workers are most vulnerable or resistant to the tide of automation and thus what support is required for them. It suggests more targeted support to protect at-risk jobs; transition services for workers at risk of both Covid-19 and automation, and upskilling for workers at risk of automation.

“Covid-19 is accelerating the rise of the robots, with some sectors seeing five years of digital transformation in five months alone, but the government’s response to the pandemic risks us losing many 'automation-proof' jobs,” said Fabian Wallace-Stephens of the RSA.

“The arts and entertainment, travel and tourism, and the creative industries, are likely to be important areas for jobs growth in the future, but need more support throughout the Covid-19 pandemic,” he continued. “Likewise, many workers who need to be retrained may be lulled into a false sense of security by the current pandemic.”

“We saw increased demand for supermarket workers during the first lockdown, but technology such as checkout-free stores could prove to be a gamechanger in the second wave. We need targeted support for at-risk sectors with a long-term future, better support for workers including 'job security councils', and more retraining.”

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