COVID-19 and the future of work

At the Commission on Workers and Technology, we’ve spent two years speaking to workers up and down the country, everywhere from an insurance office to a factory floor to a supermarket, investigating what the rapidly changing world of technology will mean for workers. In this blog series, find out what we learned.

The scale of job changes from the twin challenges of COVID-19 and automation will be large. Unfortunately, many of the sectors most at risk of automation are the same sectors worst affected by the COVID-19 crisis.

For example, restaurants, cafes bars and hotels have been severely affected by COVID-19. At the peak of lockdown half of the workforce in these sectors were furloughed. But the sector also has the highest risk of jobs being automated over the medium and long term. Checking someone into a hotel might be done through an app rather than by a person or ordering in bars might use barcodes on menus.

To make matters worse these sectors have historically hired the most people from unemployment; one in five entry-level jobs for young people joining the labour market for the first time are in hospitality. So, as these sectors undergo automation it could get more difficult for younger or low-skilled individuals who are out of work to find new employment. A recent study showed that 41% of global executives had invested in accelerating automation since the crisis started.

Those affected need immediate support: people who have been made redundant, self-employed people whose work has dried up and young people leaving education. But fundamentally, we believe this will work best if it helps people to adapt to automation too. The COVID-19 recession gives us the opportunity to create new good jobs in growth sectors like green infrastructure, and digital, as well as health, social care and education.

Working and training together is the best way to help people get back into employment. As COVID-19 has decimated sectors which typically take in a lot of new workers, the government must emphasise training and skills has got to be there to help people move into industries that have higher barriers to entry.

In July 2020, the government announced the Kickstart scheme, which funds 6-month placements for 16-24-year olds who are at risk of long-term unemployment. This needs to go further. The government must ensure that job seekers of all ages are offered high-quality training relevant to their needs and local employment opportunities.

Everyone who’s out of work should get a skills assessment to understand their work-related skills, and careers coaching to help them consider their long-term options. Anyone claiming benefits should get access to training, immediately. People who struggle with core skills in digital, maths or literacy should be given intensive support.

And we think that under-21s should be specifically supported by Jobcentres to move back into full-time education, including apprenticeships. Most importantly, after a significant spell without work, everyone should be offered a guaranteed placement, either full-time education, apprenticeship, or a kickstart job with accompanying training.

Skills training is not just for young people, but people often struggle to access training because they can’t afford to be away from work. That’s why we think the government should give people financial support to enable them to work and learn.

First, everyone who is on furlough should be offered training whilst they are not working.

Second there should be free technical education for all adults during the recession, with courses up to the equivalent of degree level being offered in priority areas.

Third we want to see an unlimited number of apprenticeships so that if an employer wishes to offer an apprenticeship they can.

The UK must increase funding for tuition and bursaries to support people to do higher education courses that support career changes. And the government should roll out the national retraining scheme, currently in its pilot phase, to target workers nationally who are in sectors at risk of redundancies and to freelancers and small contractors.

 The Commission for Workers and Technology is part of the Changing Work Centre, established by Community and the Fabian Society in February 2016 to explore progressive ideas for the modern world of work.

If you want to read more you can download the full report from our website, where you can also find resources for reps and members about managing technology in the workplace, and access to all our training and learning opportunities.

If you are a member of Community and need help or advice, please contact us at or on 0800 389 6332.

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