Ken Baker: Britain must act now as tech revolution kills jobs

IT is estimated that about 11.5 million people are employed in one way or another in digital activity in the UK. That number is likely to increase.

Are digital jobs good for the economy - or not?

We are certainly in the beginning stages of the digital revolution, the fourth industrial revolution.

I take the view that this industrial revolution, unlike the others, will destroy more jobs than it creates. This is unhistorical.

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As a Technology Minister in the Thatcher Government I made endless speeches saying “Accept technology. It’s going to create more jobs than the Industrial Revolution, the car revolution and the computer revolution”. The digital revolution will not do that, because its agents are much more widespread.

They are artificial intelligence; big data; driverless cars, lorries and taxis; the internet of things; the growth of vast businesses in a matter of years, such as Twitter, Facebook and Uber; virtual reality; cybersecurity and hacking. They will have huge effects on jobs.

I am not alone in thinking this. The Davos meeting in January this year produced a devastating report, forecasting huge job losses right across the world in various countries, in two groups in particular: unskilled workers and middle management.

For example, in America there are three million truck drivers and eight million people in stopovers and sandwich bars. If the Mercedes lorries that are now being experimented with are driverless, most of those will go.

Warehousing has already gone. The only time a human hand is likely to touch an Amazon order is ​when it knocks on your door and says it has a delivery for you. That will soon disappear because it is experimenting with drones for delivery in certain urban areas.

Only last week the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, expressed the views of his chief economist, Andrew Haldane, who said that automation in Britain is likely to cost 15 million jobs.

If these forecasts are in any way remotely true, what are we going to have to do about it? I believe the answer lies in education. There is a bit of education in the Digital Economy Bill for, I gather, 30, 40 and 50 year-olds who cannot really cope with computing or smartphones.

That is excellent and I am not criticising it – it is a bit like shutting the gate, but never mind. The Ministers in the Department of Culture, Media and Sport should talk to the Ministers in the Department for Education, because that is where it has to be.

The example I give is GCSE computing, which is a very good exam, but this last year only 60,000 people took it. Some 300,000 people took a foreign language. Mastering a computer language is more important than getting the smatterings of a foreign language. I would make GCSE computing a compulsory subject for all students aged 16 and foreign languages optional subjects. The Department for Education would die a death before it did that, but it ought to do it. It would be responding to a need.

It is important to train youngsters at 16 to give them skills which will get them a job in the digital economy. That is what university technical colleges do.

Our youngsters at 18 will have worked on projects – that does not happen in an ordinary school.

Our youngsters will have worked in teams – that does not happen in an ordinary school.

Our youngsters will have dealt with problem-solving – that does not happen in an ordinary school.

Our youngsters will have been making and designing things with their hands – that does not happen in an ordinary school.

Our youngsters will leave with a range of skills – personal and social skills, practical skills – which enable them to get a job in this digital world. If you leave at 18 with just academic subjects, it will not be enough; you are going to be one of those middle managers who are not there any more following the hollowing-out of middle management. So it has to start there.

I welcome the universal service obligation. It takes me back to the debates that we had in 1981, because I was the Minister who had to privatise BT and we had exactly the same problems with the universal service obligation then relating to traditional telephony. Even so, the Government has targeted only 95 per cent of the UK by the end of next year. That other five per cent will almost certainly be in remote rural areas, which can be reached only by mobile telephony. 3G is now almost old-fashioned; 4G is happening. I hope that the Government will invest very much more in masts for 5G, because that is how you are going to reach the lonely cottage at the end of the valley.

The Government have pledged to provide broadband of 10 megabits to 95 per cent of the country by the end of next year. Ten megabits per second is not very much actually. If you are in a household where two or three people might want to use the internet, it just will not work, and it is hopeless for small businesses. It should be increased as soon as possible to at least 15 or 20 megabits.

Ken Baker is a former education secretary. Now a Tory peer, he spoke in a Lords debate on the digital economy. This is an edited version.