A REPORT claiming artificial intelligence threatens thousands ofjobs in Essex has been criticised for creating unnecessary alarm.

In Chelmsford and Colchester, 13,000 and 9,000 respectively more jobs are at risk of being automated compared to figures in 2011.

A total of 4,000 extra positions are in jeopardy in Braintree, Thurrock and Harlow.

The Office of National Statistics figures for 2017 suggest about 1.5 million British jobs are in some danger because of computers.

Halstead Gazette:

David Burch, director of policy for Essex Chambers of Commerce, said: “There’s quite a lot of speculation without any real evidence to substantiate the jobs losses they’re talking about.

“I would be inclined to treat it with a pinch of salt, and I think perhaps we should be putting out more positivity than perhaps the message from the ONS.

“To me it seems they’re plucking numbers from thin air.

“Those locations in Essex which are said to have seen a rise in jobs at risk, it’s probably due to increased technology in general and their local economies changing.

“But there will be other companies expanding or businesses coming in and looking for employees in roles not necessarily affected by automation.”

Women and young people aged 20 to 24, are particularly in the danger zone, according to the report published today, which states 70 per cent of the roles at high risk of automation are held by women.

Automation involves replacing tasks currently done by workers with technology, which could include computer programs, algorithms, or even robots.

Halstead Gazette:

David Burch standing outside the Essex Chambers of Commerce in Colchester

Mr Burch added: “Anyone potentially affected by the introduction of automation ought to be looking for support from their employer and to see if they can be retrained.

“For young people, this could be in the form of apprenticeships or T Levels (a technical qualification equivalent to about three A-levels) so they get good work-based training to use as a base when going into employment.”

As of 2017, 528,000 jobs could be impacted by computers in Essex which has increased from 506,000 in 2011.

For most of these jobs (70 per cent) the risk has been classified as “‘medium” meaning somewhere between 30 and 70 per cent, the ONS says.

Tendring, Basildon and Brentwood are among those regions which have seen a drop in at-risk jobs.

Essex County Council is adding its voice to the debate when it releases the Skills for Growth Strategy.

“It’s not possible for anyone to fully predict what automation might mean for jobs.

"However, we’re continuing to work with key stakeholders,including employers, education colleagues and partner organisations, to ensure our skills system supports both businesses and residents to develop the skills needed by the future Essex economy,” a spokesman explained.

“It’s our ambition to have an innovative, all-age skills system focused around a holistic, lifelong approach to learning. Our Skills for Growth strategy will set out how we intend to achieve this.”

'This is a long and exciting process'

Halstead Gazette:

Strawberry picking at Bounds Farm in Maldon

A project using robots to pick strawberries at Wilkin and Sons' farm in Tiptree is one example of how technology is being used to make production more efficient.

Crop and animal production is one of the industries which has a more than 50 per cent chance of being automated nationally.

Farm manager Andrey Ivanov said: "The company has always had an innovative approach to the challenges of farming - planting unusual fruit trees, maximising the use of water, developing the new growing system and working with researchers on robotics.”

The project launched last year in collaboration with the University of Essex to explore how robots can work in natural, unstructured environments where they can pick, inspect and pack soft fruits.

He added: “We're continuing to work closely with the university in their development of a robotic fruit picker.

"This is a long and exciting process but it will be some years before the robotic pickers will be available to the commercial grower."

Care activities is another sector the report says is likely to be automated but Care UK's operations director, Geoff Edwards, disputed this.

Halstead Gazette:

Geoff Edwards of Care UK 

“I can’t really see automation or AI taking over face-to-face support for residents in a care home for a very long time, if ever. 

"However, what we are already experiencing is the rise of clever technology that helps us to free up carers time to deliver what matters – interacting with the people living in our homes. 

"For example, we’re rolling out new systems that streamline tasks like recording what medicines residents take or optimising the staffing rotas based on the needs of the residents in the home.

"These systems reduce the amount of paperwork colleagues have to complete, minimise duplication and give home managers a much clearer picture of the way their home is running," he said.

Halstead Gazette:

What the ONS says

The three occupations with the highest probability of automation are: 

  • Waiters and waitresses, shelf fillers and elementary sales occupations, all of which are low skilled or routine.

At the other end of the scale are:

  • Medical practitioners, higher education teaching professionals, and senior professionals of educational establishments. These occupations are all considered high skilled.

"It is not so much that robots are taking over, but that routine and repetitive tasks can be carried out more quickly and efficiently by an algorithm written by a human, or a machine designed for one specific function.

"The risk of automation tends to be higher for lower-skilled roles for this reason."