This article is more than 6 years old

Five things that might save us from the robots

At the launch of the new Fabians report into Labour education policy, Peter Horrocks outlines five ways forward in an increasingly automated world.
This article is more than 6 years old

Peter Horrocks is vice chancellor of the Open University and a former director at the BBC.

Imagine that your job is under threat from the rise of the robot. Imagine that you were let down by school and left without qualifications. Imagine that you have rent to pay and a family to feed. Where do you turn, what can you do?

For more and more people this dilemma is real. Automation is sweeping away existing jobs and developing technology will account for millions more. Workers will have little choice but to retrain throughout their lives. Yet there is no national mechanism to help them and only patchy provision of skills training.

In a new Fabian Society report out today, I outline five things that might help save ourselves from the rise of the robots:


1: A one-stop skills shop


Find out what skills are needed in your area, what qualifications you might need to attain them, what you need to do to start training and where to look for a job once you have retrained – all at the touch of a button. In an online world, it is a simple concept. But this one-stop shop does not exist. To achieve those relatively straightforward goals you might need to turn to a careers service, a FE college, a job centre or any one of a dozen other options. No wonder that even people with existing skills and a decent level of education find the prospect daunting

2: Set up a National Skills Service



With the right political will and working in partnership, we can build a new National Skills Service, harnessing the best of public and private sector expertise and online technology to deliver it.

Through an online national portal, people could be offered personalised advice on learning and training options. The portal could link existing systems like careers services, jobs websites, information from employers and councils and practical training options supplied by institutions such as universities and FE colleges.


3: Help people to help themselves


With the minimum of fuss, anyone could swiftly see the jobs available in their area and the training they might need to get them.  Crucially, they could use the portal to gain immediate access to free short online courses so they could take their first small step to learning easily.

Courses could range from basic skills – digital, numeracy, literacy – to more advanced content to prepare for formal study at a higher level. And we could make learning stimulating, perhaps by interactive simulations, virtual reality or augmented reality. Each course could be accompanied by an online badge or certificate that would allow the learner to demonstrate progress.

The Open University, for example, has more than 1,000 free courses already available on its OpenLearn platform which attract more than six million starters a year. Some begin after catching  one of our joint broadcasts with the BBC like Blue Planet 2; others might arrive through our YouTube channel or courses developed with partners such as Money Saving Expert or Cisco.


4: Invent a Learning Passport


If there was a joined up approach with government, people could have a digital record of their study history, a Learning Passport, which they could use in an online CV to match skills to job vacancies. From there it would be a short step to a system which could match further paid-for training to local skills shortages – perhaps with a subsidy from businesses, councils or government.

The possibilities online are almost endless. Apart from the 24-hour access to information and training which is so vital to people who need to learn while they earn, there could be online support from experts or the chance to consult others taking similar courses. An automated “Advise Me” tool could point to new options as they become available.

5: Dream, Believe, Succeed



If the National Skills Service linked up with the big digital players – the BBC, Google, Cisco or Microsoft – whole new areas of possibility might open up; maximising public awareness of the service and harnessing for the economic and public good the scale and developing technology that these organisations offer.

The beauty of this vision is that it is so achievable. It is within our power, it is within reach. Through it we can bring one step nearer that long cherished but permanently elusive political goal – a fairer, just society in which every citizen has the means to achieve to the best of their ability. A society which gives millions who had no hope the chance to dream, believe and succeed.

Life Lessons: A National Education Service that leaves no adult behind is published by the Fabian Society today.  

One response to “Five things that might save us from the robots

  1. I was very excited when I saw this title but sadly I am not sure it as ‘achievable’ or ‘in reach’ as suggested….

    This appears to be grasping for simple solutions to hugely complex problems, a common problem across society.

    ‘With the minimum of fuss’

    There have been similar projects with significantly smaller briefs that have failed miserably. I think this article massively underestimates the nuance and complexity of career decision making and evolving labour markets.

    The level of intervention, guidance and personalised support to facilitate this successfully would require absolutely huge investment, investment that has been sadly lacking in addressing these issues for generations.

    I fear web based automated solutions (you would also need a huge army of expensive experts available 24 hours to achieve this utopia) would prove to be a huge white elephant as it would take inordinate amounts of will from all stakeholders and collaborators to transfer virtually all of their efforts and IP to this centralised function when they all have their own systems, business models, customers and measures of success.

    I would be happy if we could get anywhere near delivering higher level skills on mass through the apprenticeship agenda….. Only a shocking circa 0.3% of levy funding is predicted to be spent on Degree Apprenticeships….. it all gets very complex and difficult when you start trying to operationalise these concepts.

    Nice to dream though!

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