LRD Booklets April 2020

Skills for work - the union response to future needs

Further Information


[pages 3-4]

Rapid industrial change is taking place in the UK and globally, driven by automation and digitalisation and often referred to as the fourth industrial revolution. In its June 2019 policy paper, Regulation for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) said: “The fourth industrial revolution is of a scale, speed and complexity that is unprecedented. It is characterised by a fusion of technologies — such as artificial intelligence, gene editing and advanced robotics — that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological worlds. It will disrupt nearly every industry in every country, creating new opportunities and challenges for people, places and businesses to which we must respond.”

• the first industrial revolution started in Britain around 1760, powered by a major invention: the steam engine. The steam engine enabled new manufacturing processes, leading to the creation of factories;

• the second industrial revolution came roughly one century later and was characterised by mass production in new industries like steel, oil and electricity and key inventions including the light bulb, telephone and internal combustion engine; and

• the third industrial revolution started in the 1960s and was marked by inventions such as the semiconductor, personal computers, the world wide web and internet. This is also referred to as the “digital revolution.

During previous industrial revolutions, it has often taken decades to build the training systems and labour market institutions needed to develop major new skills on a large scale. However, the pace and scale of disruption brought about by the fourth industrial revolution requires faster action.

In these circumstances, the need for sustained lifelong learning and skills development opportunities has never been greater or more urgent, and the involvement of unions in the process of change is crucial. The TUC and unions recognise that with automation and new technology changing the world of work so quickly, millions of people will need the chance to reskill over the next 20 years.

This booklet examines the skills challenges the fourth industrial revolution poses for the UK economy and how unions in particular are responding. It looks at the scale of the learning and skills crisis being faced due to the rise of automation, digitalisation and other new technology and specifically how unions are reacting to and tackling rapid change.

A central development driving change is the effect of the climate crisis and growing environmental awareness. The booklet also examines the union role in dealing with moving to a low carbon and renewable energy economy and the requirement for green skills. Case studies and examples of current developments and union initiatives are detailed throughout. The booklet is set out as follows:

• Chapter 1 looks at the background to the development and impact of the current learning and skills crisis;

• Chapter 2 focuses on the effects automation and new technology including union approaches and plans for the new skills needed to fill new roles. It looks in particular at developments in four key industrial sectors: financial services, public services, manufacturing and retail;

• Chapter 3 examines the need for green skills development against the background of environmental awareness and the climate change crisis;

• Chapter 4 looks at the weaknesses in the current skills system including the failure of the government’s flagship policy to boost workplace training — the apprenticeship levy, the need to expand adult learning and education and the need to tackle centralised skills funding;

• Chapter 5 examines the government’s proposals for change including National Skills Fund and ‘right to retrain’, and the National Retraining Scheme;

• Chapter 6 details the law in relation to workers’ rights to time for training and the rights and role of URLs; and

• Chapter 7 considers the central role of unions in developing and providing lifelong learning and skills development opportunities. It details specific union action, skills initiatives and case studies supporting members facing technological change.