Off message: Lording it over the machines

Lord Wakeham, who chaired the House of Lords committee that looked into the economic impact of migration, was playing to the gallery when he claimed that migrant workers are, indeed, ‘stealing our jobs’. He also claimed the impact on GDP “has been roughly zero” – although phrasing it in this way, the implication is that it has been slightly more positive than zero (otherwise he would have mentioned the figure). He then went on to argue that the government is wrong to suggest that migrants are doing the jobs that Britons refuse to do, as the number of jobs remaining unfilled has stayed at the same level for the past decade or so.

But setting aside his wild leaps of logic, Wakeham also raised the spectre of an automated society, saying intriguingly that“in the longer run, when wages can be increased and production methods changed, there is no valid argument for high net immigration”.

This all sounds decidedly 1970s futurologist – automation will be our new god – but it does tie in with recent notions that we ought to be becoming a ‘knowledge economy’.

So is his lordliness advocating the rise of the robots then, to do all the unsavoury tasks and drudgy construction/factory/fruit pickery currently being carried out by our migrant workforce? And what about our very own working-class jobseekers?

Ever since man could make a door open without turning a handle, scientists, futurologists and writers have been dreaming of a world in which automation takes over all those unloved, monotonous tasks, thereby freeing up the people to focus on leisure – a game of polo? Or perhaps a quick turn around the village green with Lord Bilton-Shingle (pronounced ‘chummy’)?

But such speculation was confined to those who had enough time and money to ponder such things. And notions of an upper-middle class living the life of luxury were strictly for the few, no doubt with plenty of servants to back up the robots should they suffer a momentary breakdown.

Yet all the musings of the 19th and even the 20th century seemed to hark back to slavery, with the robot being a SuperservantTM, there to do those difficult chores that were previously done for the people who mattered by the working classes. And we’re firmly wedged into the 21st century, and the robots have yet to make any serious inroads into society.

There are, of course, car-making and can-making robots, and other manufacturing operations use robots to do mundane and heavy/difficult/precision tasks. But these are not really robots in the traditional sense – if there is such a thing as a traditional robot. But they have the same tendency to break down, and the same need for a maintenance worker to fix them when they go wrong.


But where Wakeham doesn’t explain how this mechanical utopia might come about, the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) was more willing to stick its neck out. In its report Management Futures: The World in 2018, it speculates on the use of robots for basic management practices, suggesting that “some of the tasks and responsibilities currently performed by managers will be run by highly sophisticated collaboration software. Gaming technologies will significantly influence work and management”.

It doesn’t take a robot with the biggest brain in the universe to work out that the report is not referring to the jobs being taken by migrants. It clearly means that many jobs now carried out by HR professionals could be done by machines.

We kind of knew that was happening already, as, in terms of recruitment and basic admin, SAP systems, automated payroll and online pre-selection screening of job candidates are all proving their worth and demonstrating how valuable technology can be as a ‘tool’ for managers.

But that is all technology is – a tool. In the same way that a pencil is a tool, a chisel is a tool, and a car/bus/train are all tools to be used to make our lives ‘simpler’.

And perhaps Wakeham’s ideal of a country with higher wages – and presumably fewer people and fewer jobs – with robots and machines carrying out more mundane and repetitive tasks, is not as far away as it might seem. But what then does that mean for HR professionals? Will there be a place for good people management skills?

Future fighters

Fortunately, there will always be a need for a champion of the people someone who will fight for the rights of the under-privileged, the disenfranchised, the downtrodden. But hang on a minute, you cry – surely that is a role already being carried out by people more scary than robots and more difficult to exploit than migrant workers – the unionistas? After all, don’t they fight for fair pay and conditions? Well, yes, they do. Kind of. But do the unions stand up to the unscrupulous bosses who pay the low wages that make jobs economically unviable? Do they, in short, do anything unless they are paid for it? No they don’t. Unions ask for subscriptions so that they can boost low pay by an amount that will cover that subscription. Nothing more. That is why they are a dying breed that’s why people say the unions are a bunch of dinosaurs.

In reality, they are more like a bunch of dysfunctional robots. They all speak in the same monotone drawl they get ‘upset’ at the slightest thing use a standard set of phrases and all of them have an uncanny inability to adapt to any changing circumstances.

So as we move into our automated future, who will be in a position to be a champion for the people if the unions are too busy collecting subs and lining their own pockets?

The answer is a National HR Service. Independent of corporations and independent of government, it could supply HR to all organisations and all organisations could fund it, rather than growing their own. It could incorporate the sensible elements of union activity, work with Acas and other bodies (such as the CMI), and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development could continue to do whatever it does so well right now, but for the greater good.

It might seem implausible, but when lords and futurologists start talking about a future run by robots and hard-working, highly paid staff with little or no migrant workers, it doesn’t sound so strange.

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