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Automation: Is it really a threat to our jobs?

Job automation is a popular topic and an increasing fear as technology develops. There is concern that some jobs will become ‘extinct’ with greater technological advances, particularly lower skilled jobs.

Recently, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) calculated the probability of certain jobs being at risk of automation. The jobs which displayed the highest probability of being taken over by automation in the study were waiters and waitresses, elementary sales occupations, and shelf fillers. Those that showed the lowest risk of automation were medical practitioners, higher education teaching professionals, and senior professionals of educational establishments.

Using the predictions in this study, Adzuna collected job vacancy data for 32 jobs to investigate the current, real-world risks of automation. To do this, 16 jobs that are similar to the three listed by the ONS as being at the highest risk of automation, in addition to 16 jobs similar to those at lowest risk of automation, were collected and compared across four years between 2015-2018.

The expected outcome, keeping in line with the results of the ONS study, is that the vacancies for lower skilled jobs that are at high risk of automation will have decreased over time with increasing automation. Contrarily, the occupations that have a lower risk of automation should display an increase in job vacancies across the same four-year period.

The number of ‘higher risk’ jobs increased by up to 400%

Interestingly, results revealed that the job vacancies for the occupations listed to have a higher risk of automation had increased by up to 400% between 2015-2018, which contradicts the expected result and conclusion made by the ONS study. Additionally, the vacancies for the jobs with lower risk of automation had increased by up to 83% in the same time period, being largely overshadowed by the growth of the jobs with higher risk of automation.

The jobs with the highest risk of automation that displayed the greatest percentage increase across the four years were cloak room attendants, with 400% growth between 2015-18. Shortly following are housekeeper vacancies, which have grown 144% in the same period, followed by warehouse packers and warehouse workers, increasing by 135% and 121% respectively. Concluding the top five highest increasing jobs in the high risk of automation group are porters, displaying a growth of 94% across the last four years.

Table 1. Highest percentage change for jobs with the highest risk of automation between 2015-2018.

Job TitlePercentage Change (2015-2018)
Cloak Room Attendant400%
Warehouse Packer135%
Warehouse Worker121%

Table 2. Highest percentage change for jobs with the lowest risk of automation between 2015-2018.

Job TitlePercentage Change (2015-2018)
Communications Officer20%

For the jobs that are at lower risk of automation, the list of highest increasing vacancies between 2015-18 is topped by psychologists, showing an 83% increase between 2015-18. The second highest increasing jobs in this group are the pharmacists with 59% growth. Not far behind are the midwifery jobs with 47%, researcher holding a 32% increase over the last four years, ending with communications officer jobs with 15% more jobs since 2015.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the highest decrease in job vacancies over the four-year period differed by 4% between the two groups, with -31% and -36% in higher risk and lower risk jobs respectively.

Table 3. Greatest vacancy decrease in jobs with highest risk of automation between 2015-2018.

Job TitlePercentage Change (2015-2018)
Hotel Manager-31%
Call Centre-16%
Front of House-11%

Table 4. Greatest vacancy decrease in jobs with lowest risk of automation between 2015-2018.

Job TitlePercentage Change (2015-2018)
Programme Administrator -36%
Education Consultant-28%
Dental Nurse-16%

Automation costs vs labour costs

The ONS study suggests that jobs with higher risk of automation will decrease, and that those at lower risk of automation will increase, with greater levels of automation. Despite this conclusion, our results indicate that in fact, the jobs that are at a higher risk of automation have increased far more than that of the jobs that were deemed to be at low risk of automation. Therefore, the rise in automation may not be as great, or as imminent, as we initially thought with regards to the job market.

A potential explanation for the great increase in the jobs that have the highest risk of automation is that the costs of maintenance, and updating automated technology, may not outweigh the costs of employing a person for labour. The jobs defined as high risk by ONS are all lower-paid, where the cost of labour is significantly less than the initial investment required for replacement technology. These jobs are also often flexible, which means that employers can choose to vary hours or staff numbers more easily based on need, which makes human labour a less committed investment than buying or leasing technological replacements.

Alongside the increase in automated jobs, there is also a simultaneous increase in IT specialist jobs to maintain and upgrade automated models as time goes on. Whilst some jobs are becoming more automated, for example checkout counters, there is rarely a time where the machines aren’t manned and supervised by people. Therefore, society should be looking at the rise of automation as assisting us with productivity and taking care of more menial tasks, rather than fearing automated technology for taking jobs.