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Steeltown and the world of work – 40 years on…

Are there lessons to be learned as we face a new wave of change?

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On Saturday I went off to a gig at Chalk in Brighton. It’s a cracking venue – good sound, big enough to have an atmosphere, small enough to get close to the band and they don’t charge for soda water and lime!

I had played there last year with my own band, the Popguns, so it’s a great venue to play as well, but on Saturday I was there for a gig by Big Country celebrating the 40th anniversary of their album Steeltown.

 

We all have albums or songs that mean something to us, often reminding us of something meaningful at a certain point in our lives and for me, Steeltown was hugely important.

Ostensibly it is about the town of Corby and the impact of the closure of the steel mill. Near where I was brought up, the same thing was happening to Ravenscraig, one of the largest steel mills in the world at one point, and the impact its closure had on the Scottish economy was profound.

 

View from the drummer’s seat, Popguns soundcheck, Chalk in Brighton

At the time I had recently ‘moved south’ as I hadn’t been able to get a job after university, so Steeltown’s themes had a lot of resonance. They still do.

It would be great to report that, since the huge economic disruption of the 80s, we have learned the lessons of how to mitigate the impact of rapid changes in employment. This is especially important in communities which are less connected to the rest of the country and often have an over reliance on certain industries or employers, and Saturday’s rally in Newport in protest at the loss of 3,000 steel industry jobs bears this out.

But I’m not sure we have, and whilst 3,000 jobs in the steel industry sounds a lot, it’s nothing compared to what is happening in other sectors. In the UK, the retail sector has faced significant challenges with hundreds of thousands of jobs lost in the last five years according to the Centre for Retail research.

Despite all the recent commentary we are still only in the foothills of understanding how AI will affect jobs.

The loss of these roles will have been offset by an uplift in other roles, especially for warehouse staff and delivery drivers, but these often require very different attributes to traditional retail jobs: not many miners ever worked in call centres.

And the scariest part of all is that this wave of dislocation is only just beginning. Despite all the recent commentary we are still only in the foothills of understanding how AI will affect jobs. I have no doubt that, in time, AI will create as many (and maybe even more) jobs than it destroys, but the risk of economic and social dislocation in the meantime is enormous.

There is not a single solution as to how we deal with this but a lot of employers (if perhaps not yet the Government) have already grasped the importance of ‘lifelong learning’ in helping us not just prepare for whatever lies ahead but to actually grasp the opportunities presented by a new world of work.

AI will create as many (and maybe even more) jobs than it destroys, but the risk of economic and social dislocation in the meantime is enormous.

This typically goes hand in hand with a hiring for skills strategy, but my prediction is that an employers’ ability to bake in the capability of its workforce to learn how to adapt to new ways of working will not only become a huge competitive advantage in terms of productivity, but will also become an equally huge differentiator in their ability to attract candidates.

Now, I hear you ask, if only there was a conference that brought together business, HR, TA and Learning leaders to explore what this all means and what ‘human work’ might look like in the years ahead!

Well, you hear me answer, look no further! Our Digitalisation – Humanisation conference at London’s Mermaid Theatre on 6thof June does just that. It’s an amazing line up of thought leaders too, with lots of interactive discussions and networking time. All the details and tickets can be found here. 

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