Britain will officially leave the EU on the 29th March 2019, when the two-year-long game of ‘Deal or No Deal’ comes to its conclusion.
While the exact outcome of these negotiations remains to be seen, it’s clear that Brexit will have (and already is having) a significant impact on the UK jobs market – with an impending skills shortage predicted by many economists.
That’s not just a problem for the economy and for the Government, but a very real concern on the front lines of business too. As an employer, how do you overcome this potential shortfall to keep your productivity and output high?
The answer might just be made of metal. But before we explore the possibility of an increasingly robotic workforce, let’s look at why many analysts believe Brexit will cause a skills shortage in the first place.
Why the workforce is shrinking…the statistics
Shortly after the vote to leave the EU, research from Deloitte showed that 47% of high-skilled EU citizens employed in the UK were considering leaving the country within five years. 38% of lower-skilled EU workers were found to be considering their options too.
And it seems those figures may have been a good indicator for what lies ahead.
Latest figures from The Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed the number of EU nationals working in the UK fell by a record amount in the three months to June 2018 – the largest fall since records began in 1997.
Furthermore, wider figures show that Britain doesn’t appear to have an unemployment problem. In fact, UK unemployment is now down to 1.36 million according to the ONS – the lowest it’s been for more than 40 years.
In summary, these statistics suggest that there simply aren’t enough unemployed people in Britain to fill the gaps that would be left behind by an exodus of EU nationals. Add an ageing population to the picture, and many experts are predicting that the UK’s working-age population will start to shrink very soon after Brexit is complete.
Rise of the robots
With a skills shortage looking increasingly likely over the coming years, UK businesses would be wise to start planning for it now.
Businesses will need to work harder than ever to increase their appeal to a shrinking pool of potential employees – and may even need to start looking beyond the human workforce to plug the gaps.
Indeed, many British companies are now investigating the option of ‘employing’ robots to cover the shortfall, with one leading manufacturer, Universal Robots, claiming its sales to British firms have notably increased since the EU referendum.
If it sounds far-fetched, let’s not forget that robots have been among the workforce for some time now. From robotic arms packing boxes on factory floors to dedicated machines assembling parts on production lines, robot workers are relatively commonplace in certain industries – and now their appeal is expanding.
It’s not hard to see why. Robots can be highly cost-effective compared to a human salary, with prices starting at around £10,000 depending on the functionality required of them.
They also improve productivity by delivering computer-programmed consistency and eradicate the opportunity for human error. Of course, there’s also no chance of them jumping ship to a competitor three months into their contract – reducing some of the risks associated with any human hire.
The ‘cobot’ phenomenon and the implications for HR
Recent advancements in robotics mean that while many workplace robots remain basic arm-like devices, others have adopted a more human-like form.
Built to the same height as a human, with similar dexterity and the ability to move independently, robots like Rethink Robotics’ famous ‘Baxter’ model are intended to work in complete collaboration with their human colleagues, giving rise to the term ‘cobot’.
Almost by design, these ‘cobots’ blur the lines between man and machine – and that’s why it’s vital for HR to take a central role in their transition into the workforce.
One day soon you might be managing their use or monitoring their performance, but long before their introduction to your business, you’ll need to assess their impact on business culture, with obvious potential for employee backlash or concerns over job security.
The productivity benefits of introducing cobots to your business could easily be negated by a human workforce that’s collectively unhappy or worried about its future.
With Britain’s unemployment currently at a 40-year low, along with its impending separation from the EU, many experts predict that the UK is likely to face a serious skills shortage in the future.
Using robots to augment the workforce can help plug the gaps and boost productivity at relatively low cost, but there could be a significant price to pay if the transition from ‘colleagues’ to ‘cobots’ isn’t properly managed.
HR may still stand for human resources right now, but in the post-Brexit years to come, the department will have a key role to play in ensuring the right balance of human/robot collaboration.