There’s something that really gets my goat whenever it comes up in conversation. This is when some armchair politician goes on about how immigrants steal our jobs. I think it’s time to dispel this myth, and talk about what’s really changing the face of the global jobs market. Automation. More importantly, we need to talk about the new opportunities it just may bring up…
The other, a history
This story is nothing new, in fact it’s a tale as old as time. There’s something about the human psyche that rejects anyone who’s ‘other’ – who’s different from them. The classic example is the way Jews were treated throughout Christendom for centuries in the Medieval and Early Modern eras.
Every time something went wrong – say a harvest failed – or the aristocracy needed a scapegoat to distract people from their failings, the Jews were suddenly to blame for all of society’s ills. Famously, King Edward I of England issued an Edict of Expulsion in 1290 C.E. that banished all Jews from the land, basically as a way to distract attention from an unpopular tax he wanted to levy on the population. This edict wasn’t overturned for over 350 years, when Oliver Cromwell came along.
And we don’t have to look too far, to find an example of how society is all too willing to mistreat outsiders in modern times as well. Just think of the US’ Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 C.E., which put an end to all immigration of Chinese labourers into America. There was no need for this at all. It was inspired by classic 19th Century racism and political considerations. It was also driven by a fear among Americans that Chinese workers would steal their jobs. Oh, times really haven’t changed.
But immigration can often be beneficial to society. When people move to your country, they bring new ideas, values and ways of doing things, driving the innovation that society needs to move forward. Immigrants can often also help a country recover when it’s at it’s lowest ebb. The UK in the immediate post-World War Two era is a classic example. The country’s workforce was depleted from years of fighting, so the UK government invited people from former colonies such as Pakistan to fill these jobs. Without this initiative, it would have taken the UK much longer to recover from the war.
This argument can be backed up by the cold, heard data. According to The Independent, a 2018 study carried out by Oxford Economics indicated that migrants who come from the EU contribute £2,300 more to the UK’s exchequer each year than the average British adult. Also, EU migrants pay £78,000 more into the UK’s system than they take out during the course of their lifetimes.
Bold, uninformed statement
It’s important to note that despite the value it adds to the economy, people view immigration unfavourably. One study conducted by the Migration Observatory in 2018 found that 56.7% of people polled in the UK believe that immigration needs to be reduced either a little or a lot. Another 30% said it should remain the same, and only 13% believe it should be increased in any way at all.
This negative stance towards immigration has started to make itself apparent at the ballot box. US President Donald Trump, for example, rose to power on a platform of limiting immigration from neighbouring Mexico by building a “big, beautiful” wall on the southern border. There’s also statistics which show that 40% of leave voters named “I wanted the UK to regain control over EU immigration” as their number one choice for voting leave. This was a popular second choice too.
Mind the gap
This begs the question, why? Is it just that people react unfavourably to those who are different to them, or is there something else at play? If you ask the ordinary man on the street, he’s most likely to say that it’s because immigrants take their jobs. There’s this common misconception that when someone immigrates from a foreign country which has lower wage standards, they’re willing to work for less, so employees will hire them instead so they can maximise profit.
There may be some truth to this. However, the reality is that in many cases we need immigrants to do the jobs that we just don’t have the skills for. Look at the NHS – an institution which is often accused of hiring foreign personnel over those born in the UK. An article on Nursing Standard notes that NHS staff shortages and skills gaps could persist until 2027. That Migration Observatory study we mentioned early also shows that people are far more receptive to the migration of skilled workers – the kind the NHS needs, than unskilled workers e.g. labourers from countries like Poland.
The latest trend
This brings us to the crux of this article. In many cases it’s automation that’s responsible for all the job losses we hear about in the news, not immigration. Think about it. We’ve gotten to the point where we can automate tasks such as those carried out by unskilled labourers e.g. building cars, but we don’t have the tech yet to automate those conducted by skilled personnel. It would be impossible, for example, to automate the role of a doctor in diagnosing illnesses accurately.
This makes sense when we think of the people who voted for Brexit and Trump and every other populist movement that demonises the ‘other’. A Spectator article notes that of the local authorities that have a high number of manufacturing jobs (a big employer for unskilled labourers), 86% of people voted leave. In local authorities that have a low number of manufacturing jobs, only 42% did so. Also the numbers who voted in leave in low and high wage local authorities was 77% to 35%.
But among the populace in general, people are starting to wake up. One study notes that 53% of Americans see AI, robotics, and automation as a bigger threat to the nation’s jobs than immigration and outsourcing during the next 10 years. This is hardly surprising, as automation is set to bring cost savings for employers. There’s evidence to suggest, for example, that intelligent automation could add US$512 billion to the global revenues of financial services firm alone by the year 2020.
So what should we do? Should we fear automaton or embrace it? The truth is that automation is coming whether we like it or not. It holds too many benefits for employers not to embrace it. So how can we ensure that people remain in work and don’t turn on immigrants? It’s all about upskilling.
‘Upskilling’ is the act of teaching an employee new skills. I’m proposing that we look at the gaps that automation can’t fill – tasks that involve a bit more thought – and we retrain employees so they can fill those gaps. A recent McKinsey Global Institute report shows that by 2030, as many as 375 million workers (14% of the global workforce), may need to change sectors as digitalisation, automation and advances in AI disrupt the world of world, so upskilling will allow these people to do just that.
There would be real value to this for employers and employees alike. There’s one study that looks at companies that offer comprehensive training programmes against those that don’t. Employers at the former have a whopping 218% higher income, and these companies have 24% higher profit margins. It’s time to invest in our people, so no one gets left behind by automation.