The robots are coming – but is Europe ready for them? A quick look at data on the European workforce, gathered by Eurostat, suggests not.
Many low-skilled workers could be made redundant by advances in machine learning and robotics, with professional drivers, shop assistants and clothing industry operatives expected by some analysts to be the first to take the hit. Car manufacturers and transport companies are boosting investment in self-driving cars, retailers are introducing self-service checkouts, while many jobs in the clothing industry will be lost to automated sewing work lines.
With the advent of specialised artificial intelligence (AI), the disruption will also affect jobs which require advanced skills, cemented in years of training.
Legal firms in the US and the UK are already embracing artificial intelligence. DoNotPay is a legal AI dubbed “the world’s first robot lawyer,” which can automate routine legal procedures such as appealing an unfair parking ticket or claiming compensation for a delayed flight, while Lex Machina can process the language of millions of court decisions to determine the best strategies to win a case.
In Brussels, however, the official outlook on this has been fairly low-key. European Commission’s digital chief Andrus Ansip said he does not “believe in the mass unemployment scenario,” citing uncertainties about the “degree to which jobs are affected by digital change.”
Advances in AI and robots call for an education revolution: more than ever, people must be able to acquire new, and constantly updated, skills throughout their careers. But data shows that education is not keeping pace with technology change in all European countries.
What follows is a statistical summary of some of the key labour-force facts that will affect how Europe suffers or thrives as more robots arrive.
1) Earning and still learning?
The percentage of adult Europeans following any form of education and training varies vastly across member states. In Denmark, Finland and Sweden 25 to 30 percent of the population aged 25 to 64 are engaged in some form of education. In Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Poland, Romania and Slovakia it is under 5 per cent.
2) Not okay, computer
Advanced ICT skills will be crucial for an economy driven by big data and machine learning. The number of ICT and STEM graduates is not big enough to meet the growing demand for digital and engineering skills. Many Europeans have never used a computer, and it is difficult to imagine how the Commission’s plan to retrain them would work.
3) Companies could play a bigger role
Adult learning is not routinely accessible to everyone in Europe. Large companies are beginning to invest in teaching ICT skills to their employees, but the east-west gap persists and SMEs are investing much less in retraining programmes.
4) Women do more upskilling than men…
Women are more engaged in lifelong learning and do more upskilling than men, particularly in Denmark, Finland and Sweden. This can be explained, at least in part, by a need to top-up skills after spending time out of the workforce on maternity leave.
5) ….But tend to specialise in STEM less
But despite their engagement in lifelong learning, European women are less interested in graduating in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.