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BT’s plan to cut 55,000 jobs prior to AI expansion raises concerns among HR experts

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It’s reported 10,000 of the axed jobs could be replaced with AI tech

BT, one of the leading telecoms giants, has announced plans to cut 55,000 jobs by the end of the decade, potentially affecting over 40% of its workforce. The company aims to replace up to a fifth of these roles with artificial intelligence (AI) technology. After completing a national fibre network roll-out and implementing digitisation and AI, BT envisions a leaner business with reduced costs. Chief Executive Philip Jansen anticipates a significant reduction in the workforce, bringing the total number of employees down from 130,000 to between 75,000 and 90,000 by 2030.

The job cuts will be implemented gradually, aligning with the completion of the fibre build and the phasing out of 3G services. Jansen described it as a “rolling programme” that will span five to seven years. The Communication Workers Union (CWU) acknowledged that these job cuts were expected due to forthcoming changes in infrastructure and technology. The CWU emphasised the importance of talks between BT and the union to ensure a smooth transition, urging the company to prioritise the retention of direct jobs over cutting contractors. The union spokesperson recognised that as BT introduces new technologies and completes the fibre infrastructure build, labour costs would naturally decrease in the future.

However, the news of BT’s AI-driven workforce reduction raises concerns among employees. Stephen Woodhouse, a senior associate solicitor, expressed his apprehension regarding the trend of companies replacing staff with AI. While acknowledging the magnitude of the job cuts, Woodhouse emphasised that they would be implemented over the course of seven years. He suggested that BT could incentivise voluntary redundancies with enhanced packages to minimise potential backlash. If the company were to resort to compulsory redundancies, full consultation with staff members on both collective and individual levels would be crucial to avoid legal ramifications.

The debate surrounding the substitution of workers with AI raises questions about the unique capabilities of humans and AI technology. Jordi Romero, Founder and CEO at Factorial, highlighted the necessity of leveraging the strengths of both AI and human resources (HR) to achieve significant positive impact. Although AI has the potential to transform businesses, Romero emphasised that human skills, knowledge, and empathy are indispensable and currently beyond the reach of AI. HR managers can harness AI technologies, such as ChatGPT, to improve various aspects of people management, including staff retention, career development, recruitment, and promoting equality and diversity. AI can streamline operations, remove barriers to progression, and personalise the employee experience. Contrary to popular belief, Romero argued that AI enables companies to focus more on people rather than processes, freeing up resources and time for HR managers to concentrate on areas like brand development, embedding company values and goals, and fostering innovation.

As BT embarks on its workforce reduction journey, the convergence of AI and HR holds promise for organisations seeking to optimise their human capital while benefiting from the efficiencies offered by AI. The true potential of this intersection is yet to be fully realised, and businesses have an opportunity to shape a future where AI and human capabilities complement each other for mutual success.

In an interview with TALiNT International, Emma Parry Head of Changing World of Work Group at Cranfield School of Management said: “AI isn’t going to take HR roles in the near future. If anything HR and TA is becoming more important to help organisations navigate the changing environment its people implications. We will see the skills that HR and TA need change as aspects of our jobs are digitised. For the foreseeable future I would expect AI to be used to augment humans, to digitise those parts of our roles that can be better performed by AI. I would actually see AI as providing opportunities in HR and TA to make better use of people data in decision-making and to remove some of the transactional cognitive work that takes up so much of our time so that we can provide more value to customers.”

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