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Westlake Legal Group > Productivity

Daniel Rossall-Valentine: Tech now underpins prosperity in every sector – so to thrive, we need more engineers

Daniel Rossall-Valentine is Head of Campaign for This is Engineering at the Royal Academy of Engineering, and Deputy Chairman of Sevenoaks Conservative Association. He writes in a personal capacity.

“It’s the same formula: it is education, infrastructure and technology —those three things”, so said Boris Johnson in June when interviewed by the Evening Standard about his agenda for government. According to Boris, those are the three principles which informed his time as Mayor of London and will be his priorities as Prime Minister.

These priorities are very welcome because they recognise the essential connections between three vital elements of wealth generation, and represent a more sophisticated view of economic growth than the one-dimensional and idealistic catchphrase of “education, education, education” which prevailed under a previous government.

The UK is involved in a long running battle to raise its productivity. We have long needed a better vision of what we need to do to boost productivity and I believe that this vision is now being developed.

Engineers and technicians must be at the heart of this new vision. Engineers are essential for innovation, they design, build and improve technology and have become central to national productivity, economic growth and living standards. Engineers are the people who turn scientific principles into practical application, social benefit and economic value. Our world is being unified in a new way; by a series of threats that know no borders. We face big challenges, including overpopulation, environmental degradation, malnutrition, biodiversity loss, cyber-terrorism and global warming, and technology is central to building solutions for each of these and making our world work better for everyone.

In truth, technology is not a sector anymore; it is now the driver of productivity and economic success (and indeed survival) for organisations in every sector. The analytical and design skills of engineers have become more and more valuable as the rate of technological change accelerates. No sector of the economy is now protected from the forces of technological change; healthcare, agriculture, retail, and education are just four examples of sectors which are currently experiencing rapid technological change; change that offers significant improvements in productivity and benefits for users.

Growing our domestic tech capacity offers great benefits to the UK. Tech firms have shown that they can scale very rapidly. The rise of “tech unicorns” (recent startups valued at over $1 billion) demonstrates the economic and social potential offered by tech. Engineering has been proven to be a very effective multiplier of economic growth. The UK should not be modest about its future in tech because we have significant advantages, including a trusted legal regime, access to capital and credit, access to support services, unparalleled access to tech customers, an educated workforce, world class universities, stable taxation and intelligent regulation.

However, the UK has one great and persisting tech weakness which threatens to impede our growth, and that is an inadequate number of engineers and technicians. The UK needs to grow its pool of engineering talent, to ensure that UK-based tech companies can remain in the UK as they scale rapidly, and to enable engineering companies to win big projects. If the UK doesn’t expand its pool of engineering talent we risk losing tech firms, tech projects and tech investment and the huge economic and social value that they bring. The proportion of jobs that require technical skill is growing and Britain should aspire to a growing share of this growing pie.

Young people are avid consumers of technology, but we need more of them to aspire to mastering the engineering that underpins the technology so that they can become developers, makers and creators of technology, rather than mere users. We also need more young people who combine engineering skills with the entrepreneurial and managerial skills that will enable them to form and scale business enterprises; so that the UK can capture an increasing share of lucrative engineering value-chains; and provide the GDP and employment that flow from end-to-end technology development. Increasingly people who are not tech-savvy are at risk of being automated out of a job, so the need for upskilling the UK in technical skills is pressing.

This technical skills shortage has long been recognised and a multitude of projects have been started to encourage young people to consider engineering. And yet despite the number of initiatives, the shortfall of talent has not only persisted but seems to have grown larger over the last decade. We also need to diversify our talent pool and ensure we are attracting young people from all backgrounds; because only a diverse profession guarantees the diversity of ideas that technical fields rely on.

The UK has made good progress in raising the profile of engineering in the last few years. The Industrial Strategy and Grand Challenges of 2017 were very welcome developments at putting technology centre-stage. The Year Of Engineering 2018 led to a very significant change in the perception of engineering amongst school pupils. This year-long Government campaign also encouraged greater collaboration between the many professional engineering institutions that make up the UK’s complex engineering landscape. We can be optimistic that the UK has got into the good habit of paying far more recognition to the engineers and entrepreneurs who enable, create and democratise the technology which improves lives, saves time and generates wealth.

Too often we allow our natural British reserve about talking about wealth to prevent us talking about wealth creation. Social benefit and commercial success are too often portrayed as trade-offs, when they are mutually reinforcing; the best technology delivers for investors as well as society-at-large. Technological success is a stool with three legs; technical progress, commercial success and social benefit. Technology is more than technology: technology is inherently social, and inherently financial, and we need more technologists who look at the full picture rather than the purely technical aspects of technology. Without profit, technology is the greatest creator of loss and debt known to mankind, and without social benefit technology can be a force of social division, rather than a democratising force.

To maximise the benefits of technology we need to close the technology skills gap, and this requires action by many players. We cannot rely on Government alone to solve this persistent problem. We know that too few young people are studying engineering related degrees and apprenticeships. One major factor is the image of engineering. Unfortunately, a number of unappealing stereotypes have become attached to the profession of engineering. Many young people assume that engineering involves hard, manual work, and male-dominated workplaces. Too many young people also believe that engineering is a narrow specialism that offers only a limited range of job opportunities. The problem is particularly acute with female students. Inspiring more girls to pursue STEM subjects and careers will not only help us to address the skills gap in science and technology, but it will also help us to create a more diverse workforce that truly represents the world we live in.

The UK has a great tradition of innovation and enterprise but only by unlocking the interest of our young people by presenting a positive vision of business enterprise and technology can we continue to succeed in this increasingly competitive field. One recent example of success is the This is Engineering campaign which was developed by a number of the UK’s leading technology companies and launched in January 2018. The campaign presents young people with positive, modern, authentic images of careers in technology and engineering, through the medium of short films which are available on many social media platforms. The films also highlight the societal benefits that new technology delivers, the team-work that technology and engineering projects rely on, and the creativity that is required at every stage in the design and build process.

By helping to promote careers in technology and engineering we can ensure that more and more young people see technology not just as a range of products to be consumed but also as a range of careers to be considered.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

In an Industrial Corner of France, 18,000 Jobs Are On Offer. Why Aren’t People Taking Them?

OYONNAX, France — Along a vast alpine plain, hundreds of factories are cranking out plastic perfume bottles, automobile parts and industrial tools. Trucks chug through mountains ferrying thousands of ready-made wares for export. On billboards and warehouses, “We’re hiring!” signs flutter in the breeze.

Jobs are plentiful in Ain, a sprawling manufacturing region in eastern France known as “Plastics Valley.” But companies in this forested frontier across from Switzerland have slowed production because they cannot find enough workers for a production line that increasingly requires computer and digital know-how.

“It’s a brake on competitiveness,” said Georges Pernoud, the president of Groupe Pernoud, whose company makes injection molding for plastic parts for BMW and other automakers. He said he has turned away contracts worth nearly a million euros in the past two years because he couldn’t find skilled people here or anywhere in France who wanted a factory job.

ImageWestlake Legal Group merlin_158029035_703f5e6a-2117-4ef9-9cc6-aa5a74a20579-articleLarge In an Industrial Corner of France, 18,000 Jobs Are On Offer. Why Aren’t People Taking Them? Unemployment Shortages Productivity Macron, Emmanuel (1977- ) Income Inequality France Factories and Manufacturing Europe

George Pernoud, 53, heads the George Pernoud group which produces metal molds for the plastic industry.CreditAndrea Mantovani for The New York Times

“We need more tech-savvy employees,” Mr. Pernoud said, pointing to a glass-encased robotic machine on his factory floor programmed by a worker to produce a precision steel mold. “But not enough people are willing to take these jobs.”

France, like many countries in Europe, has a labor problem. But in a nation where thousands of people took to the streets in the Yellow Vest movement to protest income inequality and a lack of economic opportunity, there is a peculiar twist.

Despite an unemployment rate of over 8 percent — the highest in Europe after Italy, Spain and Greece — over a quarter of a million jobs are unfilled. Businesses can’t find people to work as plumbers, engineers, waiters, cooks. The list goes on.

Nowhere is the challenge as stark as in manufacturing, where nearly 40 percent of companies cite a dearth of manpower. In Ain, which specializes in making plastic goods and machinery parts, at least 18,000 jobs are on offer.

The plastics industry faces a hard sell as concerns mount over the environmental impact of a throwaway culture.CreditAndrea Mantovani for The New York Times

France needs a solution quickly. After recovering from a double-dip recession during the financial crisis, the economy is slowing again, this time from a 1.7 percent expansion as Europe’s recovery cools. Manufacturing isn’t contributing as much to growth as it could because of the labor problem, Agnès Pannier-Runacher, France’s economy minister, has warned.

She recently began a campaign to enhance the industry’s appeal, featuring a 20-foot inflatable plastic rooster, a symbol of French pride. The rolling caravan, called the “French Fab” tour, showcases factories as hubs for high tech.

Employers say manufacturing has an image problem after decades of cheap competition from Asia and Eastern Europe shuttering factories across France. The industry has shrunk to 10 percent of the economy today from 25 percent in the 1960s. Recent factory closures at Ford, Alstom and Whirlpool have added to an image of woe.

Labor unions say the issue is not a shortage of workers, but that companies pay low wages and then complain about a lack of labor. If companies increased pay, unions argue, they would find employees.

PRP Creation makes 75 million bottles a year for famous cosmetic brands like Chanel and Dior.CreditAndrea Mantovani for The New York Times

Others say France’s predicament is more complicated.

“The real problem is that French industry is still not as modernized as elsewhere in Europe,” said Patrick Artus, the chief economist of Natixis Bank, based in Paris. “That has lead to low productivity, which prevents companies from raising salaries,” he said. Manufacturers need to ramp up investments, he added.

President Emmanuel Macron is trying to clear roadblocks, in part by modernizing the national vocational system. Only around a third of French students pursue vocational training or apprenticeships, which are seen as leading to unprestigious work in a country that prizes academics and white-collar careers.

By contrast, in Germany, Europe’s manufacturing powerhouse, the industry is seen in a positive light. Around half its 16- to 24-year-olds enter apprenticeships that include hands-on work at Siemens, Daimler and other name brands. In France, manufacturers say, the training is less intensive and no longer produces enough people with skills for the current crop of jobs

Mr. Macron’s reform lifts the age limit for apprenticeships to 30 from 25 and makes it easier for people to qualify for and keep them. The government also plans to reimburse companies for apprentice work contracts. One million low-skilled job seekers and one million young people from disadvantaged backgrounds will be offered training in digital technologies. France’s generous jobless benefits are being tightened to return people to the work force more quickly.

The city council is trying to appeal to new inhabitants by promoting the quality of life thanks to its picturesque places and neighboring landscapes.CreditAndrea Mantovani for The New York Times

But in Ain, and elsewhere, the efforts aren’t producing results fast enough.

This area became a hub for plastics-making in the 1920s when companies made fashionable combs and hair accessories. Activity expanded after World War II as demand for plastics, tools and machinery drove a surge in manufacturing.

Oyonnax, one of Ain’s biggest cities, grew wealthy as the factories expanded. In the early 1980s, locals recall, the largest concentration of Ferraris in France was found here.

But French industry proved no match for globalization and did not adjust to competition from countries with lower labor costs and tax rates. Europe’s financial crisis forced companies to modernize quickly. French factories are now scrambling for programmers and coders to run increasingly automated machinery. “We’re struggling to convince people that the work isn’t the same as decades ago,” said Damien Petitjean, the director of the Lycée Arbez Carme, the main high school in Oyonnax.

The plastics industry in particular faces a hard sell, said Mr. Petitjean, as concerns mount over the environmental impact of a throwaway culture.

PRP Creation employs 175 workers, 50 of which were hired in the last two years.CreditAndrea Mantovani for The New York Times

The Oyonnax school once specialized in training for industrial jobs. In the 1970s, it shifted to a general curriculum, mirroring the decline of manufacturing. Today it has swung back to offering technical diplomas, working in partnership with companies and research institutes.

Yet only half its 1,100 students pursue such degrees, Mr. Petitjean said. And last year, only 40 entered the plastics industry.

Pay is one big reason.

Industrial salaries have risen gradually for the last 20 years and increased about 2 percent last year. Still, entry-level workers earn just a couple hundred euros more than France’s monthly minimum wage of 1,521 euros a month. Small and medium-sized businesses, the backbone of French industry, say they can’t offer more because they must make a hefty contribution toward France’s social safety net, which provides health care, education and unemployment.

“In France, employer taxes amount to 40 percent of a worker’s salary,” said Stéphane Vandenabeele, the managing director of UNT, which makes precision tools for eyewear and watches. He recently lost a skilled employee to a competitor in Switzerland that offered nearly twice the 2,800 euro after-tax salary he paid. With Swiss employer taxes of just 12 percent, he said, he couldn’t match the price.

This area became a hub for plastics-making in the 1920s when companies made fashionable combs and hair accessories.CreditAndrea Mantovani for The New York Times

Employers in Plastics Valley try, increasingly, to poach workers from other companies or devise creative workarounds.

Mr. Pernoud, the producer of plastics injection molds, hired a technician from Portugal to fill one of a dozen openings at his 110-person operation. Although he pays up to 3,000 euros a month for engineers, there are few takers. But that’s good money in Portugal, where the average monthly wage is around 1,900 euros, Mr. Pernoud said. He hopes to hire four more — quickly.

“I have no choice but to look abroad,” he said. “I can’t develop my business otherwise.”

Ten minutes away, PRP Creation, which makes plastic cosmetics containers for luxury groups including Dior, Chanel and Estee Lauder, has found a partial solution by placing job ads on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

The chief executive, Joël Viry, said many of the 175 jobs on his floor are on a classic production line. He attracted workers by establishing good managerial relations. The son of a boilermaker, he regularly walks the floor to converse with employees, who include older workers and over 30 nationalities. At any given time, at least 40 young people on interim contracts work in the factory to gain experience.

Mohamed El Hmidi, 23, has worked mostly in construction and at odd jobs.CreditAndrea Mantovani for The New York Times

Other companies, worried that government reforms will take time, are pooling resources to create their own training programs.

At LMT Belin, a producer of tools for the plastics, auto and aerospace industries, the chief executive, Bertrand Lefevre, teamed up with five companies to provide hands-on work experience for the unemployed. On a recent afternoon, eight young men trained on how to program robotic equipment, hovering over a machine churning out high-performance drill bits.

Mohamed El Hmidi, 23, had worked mostly in construction and at odd jobs. He landed in Oyonnax’s unemployment office a few months ago and heard about training at LMT Belin. He jumped at the opportunity.

“This is our future,” said Mr. El Hmidi, nodding at the factory floor, where workers were monitoring computer-powered machines. He had already rotated through the other four factories that had combined forces with LMT Belin. “Here, we’re getting exposure to new technologies,” he said.

For Mr. Lefevre, it was a small victory in a larger battle for economic survival.

“We can’t just keep complaining there’s no one to hire,” he said. “We have to make it happen ourselves.”

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Patrick Spencer: Some advice for the new Conservative leader. Stick to these three ideas to boost productivity.

Patrick Spencer is Head of Work and Welfare at the Centre for Social Justice.

The Conservative leadership contest has proved to be the battle of ideas that the party wants, needs and should probably have had back in 2016. Yes, Brexit has dominated the discussion, but in amongst chat of proroguing, No Deals and backstops, we have heard interesting ideas about, for example, tax reform, a national citizens’ service and early years support for young mothers. During the Parliamentary stage of the contest, the Centre for Social Justice hosted the Social Justice Caucus of Tory MPs, holding their own hustings event for the Conservative leadership, and the candidates didn’t disappoint.

The litany of new ideas stem from the fact that most of the candidates felt it is time to reshape the Government’s fiscal strategy. The last nine years have been defined by successive Coalition and Conservative government’s support for fiscal rebalancing. David Cameron and George Osborne successfully formed governments after two general elections on a platform of fiscal prudence.

However, the political landscape has changed. Younger voters who weren’t around to vote in 2010 now make up a sizeable chunk of the electorate. Years of austerity, job growth and a much healthier national balance sheet has meant that ‘austerity’ is increasingly unpopular.  Combine this with the perceived economic harm that a No Deal Brexit may cause, and the case for loosening austerity is compelling.

In this vein, Boris Johnson has argued for lower taxes on higher earners as well as increased spending on education. Esther McVey wanted to cut the International Aid budget and spend savings on the police and education. Dominic Raab called to raise the National Insurance Threshold and cut the basic rate of income tax. Michael Gove hoped to reform VAT so that it becomes a Sales Tax. And Sajid Javid said he would slow the rate of debt reduction, which would free up £25 billion for new spending commitments.

Even outside of the leadership circle, Tory MPs and right-of-centre think tanks are advocating for a new spending strategy.  Neil O’Brien has coined the ‘O’Brien Rule’, which allows for budget deficits as long as debt as a percentage of GDP is falling. This sentiment was echoed by Philip Hammond, who called on every leadership candidate to commit to keeping the deficit under two per cent of GDP as long as the national debt was falling.

Considering the appetite to do something, the next leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister should be warned that spending for spending’s sake is not a good idea. If the decision is taken therefore to loosen the fiscal taps, it should be carefully targeted so that this increases growth and more importantly, productivity.

The Centre for Social Justice released a report in 2017 that highlighted a clear policy agenda that used tax and spend policies to boost productivity across the UK. It is roundly recognised that the productivity conundrum in the UK has not been the result of any one issue but, rather, is a confluence of factors that have taken hold of our economic and social machine.

First and foremost, British companies do not invest and innovate enough. Compared to other countries we have lower levels of capital investment, lower uptake of new-generation technologies such as robotics, and entrepreneurs sell out too early. Britain has a proud history of innovation and technology, and yes we do have several world beating unicorn companies, but in recent years we have lost ground in the innovation stakes to the US, Germany and the Asian economies.

The CSJ recommended a raft of policies that could help reverse this, starting with a ramp up in public funds available for research and development. Public cash for R+D has a crowding in (as opposed to crowding out) effect. We also called (counter-intuitively) for the scrapping of Entrepreneurs Tax Relief. It is expensive and does little to help real entrepreneurs, and only acts as a tax loophole for asset strippers (this policy has recently been advocated by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Resolution Foundation). We also called for simplification of the tax system. Look at the Annual Investment Allowance, for instance, that was decreased by 75 per cent in 2012, increased by a factor of 10 in 2013, doubled in 2015, only for it to then be almost cut in half in 2016.

Second, the CSJ called for a radical increase in support for vocational education in the UK. While businesses needed some help to innovate and compete, the labour market needs support in terms of skills and competencies. Recommendations included a new spending commitment for FE colleges and more support for adult learners who are in low skilled work. The Augar Review called for the Government to make £1 billion available for colleges, a good start but realistically the Government will have to go much further in the future. here is an example of where public money can make a big difference in public policy.

Last, if the next Prime Minister wants to support productivity growth, they can look at rebalancing growth outside of London across Britain’s regions. London is home to less than a quarter of the UK’s population but contributes to 37 per cent of our economic output. It attracts a disproportionate number of high skilled and high paying jobs. Public spending on infrastructure in London dwarfs that spent in the North and Midlands. Reversing this trend will of course take a generation, but by boosting transport spending on inter-city transport (most obviously Northern Rail), tax breaks for companies that set up in struggling cities such as Doncaster, Wigan or Bradford, as well as more money for towns and cities to spend on green spaces and cultural assets (such as museums, public art, restaurants and bars) that attract young people.

These three productivity-generating policy areas will allow any Government to loosen the fiscal taps without bankrupting the country. When the next Prime Minister appoints his Chancellor, he or she would be well advised to stick to the basics of cutting taxes, spending more on education and rebalancing growth outside of London.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Iain Mansfield: Brexit by October 31. Stop using the Left’s language. And stand for skilled workers. Essentials for our next Prime Minister

Iain Mansfield is a former senior civil servant, winner of the Institute of Economic Affairs Brexit prize and a Conservative councillor candidate. He writes in a personal capacity.

Our next Prime Minister will take office at the most challenging time since the 1970s. Not only is there Brexit – an issue of fundamental national importance, that has destroyed the last two Prime Ministers and poses an existential challenge to the future of the Conservative Party – but the old political assumptions are changing. Across the West, traditional voter coalitions are shifting, as citizens reject centrist compromises. Flatlining productivity, unaffordable houses and millions of voters feeling abandoned, either culturally or economically, are just some of the challenges they will face.

Many of those who voted for David Cameron in 2010 are lost to the party, alienated by Brexit. In Britain today, age and education level are better predictors of a person’s vote than class. To win a general election, our next Prime Minister must forge a new coalition of voters that unites the traditional Tory shires with the left-behind Leave voters in the Midlands and North. Even more importantly, they must deliver authentic right-wing policies that address the causes of ordinary working people’s dissatisfaction. People want change and, if the Conservative Party does not deliver it, they are likely to seek answers in the flawed blandishments of Jeremy Corbyn’s socialism.

In that context, there are three essentials that our next Prime Minister must prioritise for the good of the people, the nation and the party:

  • Leave the EU by 31 October, on WTO terms if needed.
  • Openly champion conservative values rather than speaking the language of the left.
  • Reposition the party as the natural home of the skilled working and lower middle classes.

Leave the EU by 31 October, on WTO terms if needed

Not only is delivering on the outcome of the referendum a democratic imperative, it is vital for the continued existence of the party. Recent polling shows that, if we have not left the EU, the Conservatives are likely to suffer devastating losses in a general election; these figures could be even worse if large numbers of members, councillors or even entire associations defect to the Brexit Party. Many members have held on over the last few months purely out of hope that the next Prime Minister would deliver where May failed: another betrayal in October would see these members permanently lost.

Leaving with a deal is preferable, if some changes to the backstop can be agreed and Parliament will pass it. If not, as I have argued previously on this site, we have nothing to fear from No Deal. Preparations for such should be put into top gear on the first day in office. The Prime Minister must make clear that they will under no circumstances ask for an extension; and that they are, if needed, prepared to systematically veto any measure put forward by the EU on regular business if the UK is for some reason kept in. While every effort should be made to secure a deal, if it cannot be reached, Parliament must be faced with the simple choice of permitting a WTO exit or voting no confidence in the Prime Minister – a gamble, admittedly, but one that is preferable to another disastrous extension.

Openly champion conservative values rather than speaking the language of the left

In recent years too many Conservative politicians have allowed our opponents to define the playing field. We cannot beat the socialists by adopting the language and assumptions of socialism. Our next Prime Minister must stop feeding the narrative of identity, grievance and division, with its assumption that an individual’s potential is defined by their characteristics, that so-called ‘burning injustices’ are solely the responsibility of the state to address, and that the government always no best.

Changing the narrative will be a long endeavour. The systematic appointment of those with conservative values into key ministerially appointed positions; an authentically right-wing approach to policy making in Whitehall; and the withdrawal of state funding from the network of organisations that maintain the left’s grip on the policy narrative are essential. But over and above this, the Prime Minister must be willing to personally stand up and champion individual liberties and freedoms; to condemn progressive authoritarianism and to be visibly proud of Britain, our culture and the rich global heritage of our citizens.

Reposition the party as the natural home of the skilled working and lower middle classes

Young, metropolitan graduates may once have been natural Conservatives, but no longer. There is little hope of reversing this in the immediate aftermath of Brexit. Instead of squandering our effort here, our new Prime Minister should instead make the party the natural home of the skilled working and lower middle classes, particularly in the midlands and north.

Such voters have a natural affinity to the traditional conservative values of low tax and individual liberty, but also greatly value and rely day-to-day onn strong public services. This places the Conservatives in a difficult position after a decade of austerity: Labour made hay campaigning on cuts to police numbers and falls in per pupil spending in 2017. But how to fund significant increases in core services without raising taxes or alienating core Conservative voters, such as via the disastrous proposals on social care in the 2017 manifesto?

To find the funding the next Prime Minister must be bold enough to slay the progressive sacred cows that soak up billions annually in public funding. Three immediately spring to mind:

With the additional £15 billion plus a year, the Prime Minister could at a stroke increase police funding by 25 per cent (£3 billion), boost school funding per pupil by 20 per cent (£8 billion) and increase spending on social care by 20 per cent (£4 billion). And then split the proceeds of further growth between public services and tax cuts.

As well as this, we should champion the interests of the high street, enterprise and small businesses and oppose crony corporatism. Multinational companies that make use of aggressive tax avoidance, abuse their market position or actively work against UK sovereignty should not enjoy government grants, procurement or time in No. 10. Fundamentally, our next Prime Minister should spend more time listening to the Federation of Small Businesses and less time listening to the CBI.

Conclusion

As members, we have two candidates set before us. Both are able politicians and tested leaders who represent the best the Parliamentary party has to offer. As we assess who should be not just our next leader, but our Prime Minister, we should do so against their ability to deliver these vital elements.

Both have committed to delivering Brexit by October 31 – but which one has the ability, the genuine will and the courage to do so by any means necessary? Both are true-blue Conservatives – but which one will truly champion our values, taking the battle to our adversaries with the eloquence and conviction of a Thatcher or a Churchill? Both recognise the importance of reaching out to new voters – but which one can devise and push through the policies needed to unite the Tory shires with the Leave voters of the north? Consider carefully and cast your vote.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

You’re Hired. Now Wear This Headset to Learn the Job.

CHILLICOTHE, Ohio — When Toby Bouska Jr. started assembling cabs for Kenworth semitrucks last year, he learned the ropes by observing longtime workers at the factory. But it wasn’t exactly engaging, and he didn’t get much practice doing the job himself.

“It’s them doing the job, and you just have to watch,” said Mr. Bouska, 21, who works at Kenworth’s plant in Chillicothe. “I’m not really good at just sitting there watching.”

But then his managers had him train in a new way: with a high-tech headset. They gave him a Microsoft HoloLens, a device that blends digital imagery with the real world. When he wore the headset, it overlaid digital arrows and diagrams over the parts he was looking at, helping to guide his work.

“With the HoloLens, it’s just you and the directions,” Mr. Bouska said. He said he had picked up his first new task in about 20 minutes.

After the success with Mr. Bouska’s training, Kenworth’s parent company, Paccar, has ordered 50 of the devices. Five will be coming to the Chillicothe plant, which employs more than 2,000 workers, and the manager plans to use them to train employees on at least two dozen tasks.

ImageWestlake Legal Group merlin_155687016_5fe38f9f-f920-46b0-86c7-6422974214a6-articleLarge You’re Hired. Now Wear This Headset to Learn the Job. Wearable Computing Tablet Computers Software Productivity Paccar Inc Mobile Applications Microsoft Corp Labor and Jobs Headphones and Headsets Enterprise Computing Computers and the Internet

The latest version of HoloLens, which ships later this year, will be more tailored to workers than this original model.CreditAndrew Spear for The New York Times

High-tech devices have played a central role in white-collar workplaces for decades, with a screen in front of nearly every face, and employees’ days spent on email, spreadsheets and video conferences. Now, companies like Microsoft see a multibillion-dollar opportunity to get more personal technology, including the HoloLens, in the hands of workers who don’t sit behind a desk.

The new push goes beyond tools to perform a particular task, like a clerk ringing up a customer with a tablet or a robot moving materials around a factory. It is meant to integrate the tools into the corporate life of a company, like training, scheduling and regular communications. The efforts are enabled by cloud computing, which makes it easier to deliver information via a smartphone app or a mixed-reality headset.

Google is going after the market, as is Salesforce, with its acquisition of Quip, which makes programs for worker productivity. Plenty of niche tech products target particular industries and tasks.

Perhaps no tech company, though, is more aggressive than Microsoft at pursuing so-called frontline or firstline workers, who do the actual production, sales and service work for customers. Microsoft built much of its riches on supplying technology to businesses — it now has a market valuation of over $1 trillion, more than any other publicly traded company — and is pushing a variety of products to the workers, including messaging services and the HoloLens.

Microsoft estimates that two billion frontline workers have access to fast internet connections and are, in theory, potential customers. In a call with investors this year, Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s chief executive, said selling products for firstline workers expanded the market Microsoft could tap into.

A truck cab leaving the paint booth at the Kenworth plant. Microsoft estimates that two billion production, sales and service workers are potential customers for its tools.CreditAndrew Spear for The New York Times
The HoloLens reads bar codes to calibrate its augmented reality programs with physical objects and spaces.CreditAndrew Spear for The New York Times
The field for equipping so-called frontline workers at companies like Kenworth is wide open, a Microsoft executive said.CreditAndrew Spear for The New York Times

Emma Williams, a Microsoft executive who develops productivity tools for various industries, like health care and retail, said there was a big, open playing field.

“With firstline workers, it’s pretty fascinating,” she said. “There really isn’t a large incumbent.”

Technology already surrounds many frontline workers, but many of these workers do not even have a corporate email account, so they create workarounds to communicate. Team Inc., a company that performs maintenance and repairs at industrial sites like refineries and pipelines, realized last year that almost half of its field technicians used personal email accounts and cellphones to communicate, said Tracy Terrell, Team’s chief information officer. The company’s leaders decided that was too risky.

“We don’t want to be emailing to Yahoo accounts or sending technical information via text, because that’s kind of our trade secret,” Mr. Terrell said.

Any new tool has to be as easy as consumer apps for workers to adopt them, he said. His company’s field technicians can have little patience for impractical solutions, so his team has been easing them into a version of Microsoft Teams, a messaging platform, designed specifically for firstline workers.

The HoloLens can help with tasks like making sure cables are connected correctly.CreditAndrew Spear for The New York Times

It took a year to get everyone to sign up for the corporate logins needed for Teams. And because old habits die hard, the system automatically sends the technicians a text message to check the app when they have a message to read. There, managers in the office can communicate directly with people in the field. Some technicians have created group chats, like one for mechanical bolt specialists, to help troubleshoot repairs.

More than 500,000 organizations use Teams, though Microsoft doesn’t break down how many use the version designed for frontline workers. That version can sync with programs that schedule workers, letting them swap shifts, or only send messages to people working at a particular time.

“There is no question this will work,” Brad Reback, an analyst at the investment bank Stifel, said of the push to reach frontline workers. “The speed at which companies decide to roll it out? We’ll see.”

While Teams is already gaining traction, the HoloLens effort will most likely take years to develop, because of the investment required to buy the headset and put it to use.

A screen displaying the view from a HoloLens.CreditAndrew Spear for The New York Times

When Microsoft introduced the HoloLens, it was marketed for both gaming and corporate use. But Microsoft quickly learned that a $3,000 consumer product was not likely to take off, so it focused on businesses that might have budgets to buy them in large numbers.

Microsoft’s biggest known HoloLens customer is the military. In November, the Pentagon awarded Microsoft a $479 million contract to provide “increased lethality, mobility and situational awareness” to soldiers in training and on the battlefield. A group of Microsoft employees objected to the ethics of working on weaponry, but Mr. Nadella defended the contract, saying Microsoft was “not going to withhold technology from institutions that we have elected in democracies to protect the freedoms we enjoy.”

The latest version of the device is more tailored to workers. Microsoft made the headset better balanced so workers can wear it longer. It also made the HoloLens easier for an in-house I.T. department to deploy, like letting workers log in to it with their regular corporate account and password and building basic applications for key uses.

One, called Remote Assist, lets a worker in the field interact with a specialist somewhere else. ZF, a large automotive supplier, has been using the HoloLens to help with plant maintenance.

In the past, when something broke in South Carolina, an expert might fly in from ZF’s headquarters in Germany to fix it. Now, the German expert can look at exactly what a factory technician wearing a HoloLens sees and help troubleshoot a problem.

“You can circle it and say, ‘This is what I’m talking about,’” said Robert Copeland, who leads the HoloLens adoption for ZF.

Rod Spencer, the manager of the Kenworth plant, said the HoloLens had overcome his initial skepticism.CreditAndrew Spear for The New York Times

When Paccar experimented with an earlier version of the HoloLens, it was bulky and required developers with skills in building video games to make the right applications.

“The initial reaction for us was, ‘Cool gizmo, but so what?’” said Rod Spencer, who runs the Kenworth plant in Chillicothe. “We couldn’t figure out how to get it applied in the real world.”

Mr. Spencer said his view had changed with the new version and the corporate tools that Microsoft built, like an application that makes it easier to build step-by-step training.

Mr. Bouska thinks most of his colleagues will warm to donning a large headset in training, though a few may resist.

“Some,” he said, “still use flip phones.”

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Inside an Amazon Warehouse, Robots’ Ways Rub Off on Humans

The last person to touch an item at an Amazon fulfillment center is the packer, whose job is to stick each order in a box and tape it shut.

As with most jobs, being a packer is more complicated than it looks. Michael Waterman, a packer at Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse, told me that when he started, he would grab each piece of tape too quickly, and it would invariably stick to his gloves. He ruined two pairs in his first two days.

Later, he overcompensated by waiting too long, at which point the tape had lost its stickiness. Only after some experimentation did he find the sweet spot.

And yet, being a packer isn’t that complicated. When I asked Mr. Waterman whether he had run into similar problems in other aspects of his job — like figuring out how long a piece of tape to use — he demurred. “The right amount of tape will always come out,” Mr. Waterman said, referring to the automatic tape dispenser at his side.

ImageWestlake Legal Group 03warehouse4-articleLarge-v2 Inside an Amazon Warehouse, Robots’ Ways Rub Off on Humans Staten Island (NYC) Robots and Robotics Productivity Labor and Jobs E-Commerce Delivery Services Computers and the Internet Amazon.com Inc

Michael Waterman, a packer at the warehouse, had to master how to grab tape without getting it stuck to his gloves. Measuring the tape is left to an automatic dispenser.CreditHiroko Masuike/The New York Times

My trip to Amazon’s Staten Island center had its origins two months earlier. I was writing about a former worker named Justin Rashad Long, who contended that he had been fired for speaking out about working conditions there. Beyond the claim of retaliation, Mr. Long said laboring at Amazon had been a tremendous slog: Employees worked long shifts with few breaks. Managers held them to unreasonable goals. The time they spent waiting in line at metal detectors — to discourage theft — lengthened their day.

The company disputed these allegations, in some cases with extensive data. It invited me to come see the place for myself. (Amazon gives public tours at certain fulfillment centers, but not on Staten Island.) So, in mid-May, I spent a few hours observing workers and asking them about their jobs, with a press chaperone in tow. By the end, I had concluded that both sides had a point.

The workplace, with more than 2,500 full-time employees, seemed more humane than the picture Mr. Long painted. The general manager, Chris Colvin, knew many of his employees’ names and bantered with them amiably. The workers, in turn, seemed invested in the company. The center had recently held a contest for their children to illustrate job safety practices, like bending at the knees and wearing gloves. A few dozen drawings were still on the wall.

But underlying Mr. Long’s charge was the idea that Amazon treats workers as if they were something less than people — that its obsession with optimizing fulfillment centers for a world of one-day delivery requires a system of stifling routines, rules and metrics. That system can make workers feel patronized and spied on. It can crowd out personal initiative.

There seemed to be something to the picture Mr. Long painted, though the problem may be less with Amazon than with technology itself.

Every day, about 50 truckloads of merchandise turn up at the warehouse’s receiving dock. One group of workers unloads the goods, and another group — known as “water spiders” — distributes them to work stations. There, a third group, known as stowers, transfers the items onto what are called pods. These are large shelving units that hold several dozen bins, which are attached to robots that move through the building.

Of the entry-level jobs at Amazon, the stower’s arguably provides the most room for decision making. Stowers choose the bin where they want to place each item, keeping in mind that they should make the task as easy as possible for the worker, known as a picker, who will have to grab items out of the bin. Stowers should, for example, avoid obscuring one item with another. “Our customers are the pickers,” a stower named Jing Zhang told me.

Mr. Zhang seemed like a state-of-the-art Amazon employee — someone who saw the world through the eyes of a manager. “I try to find ways to make me more efficient,” he said. He figured out how to reduce wasted movement by unpacking the box closest to the shelving unit first, then replacing it with the next-closest box, rather than wandering to and from other boxes.

Still, even Mr. Zhang and his fellow stowers must work with Amazon’s software looking over their shoulder. If a stower attempts to stick, say, a bottle of sunscreen in a bin next to one that already has such a bottle of sunscreen in it, the bin will light up to signal that this is not allowed. Adjacent bins with identical items can confuse the pickers. The same thing happens if a stower tries to put heavy items too high on the pod, or too much weight on either side.

After the pods are full, the robots move them across a large caged area. If an item falls down along the way, or a robot stalls, a worker on what’s known as the amnesty team will venture into the cage to sort it out. The worker wears a special vest that allows the robot to detect his or her location and stop before it gets too close.

This turned out to be relevant in Mr. Long’s case. The company said he had once reached too far into the robot area, in violation of safety protocol. Mr. Long said this was a pretext for his firing.

It’s hard to know who’s right. On the one hand, the safety rules can seem excessive. But from inside a fulfillment center, you begin to appreciate the rules’ urgency.

If an item falls or a robot stalls, a member of what’s known as the amnesty team will sort things out. A special vest identifies the worker, prompting the robot to stop before getting too close.CreditHiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Watching an amnesty worker walk among the robots can feel a bit like watching a zookeeper mingle with lions. You know this is a trained professional who will probably walk in and out of the cage without incident. Yet you can’t help wondering: What are the chances that this person gets mauled?

Picking inventory off shelves to fill customer orders is usually the most common job at an Amazon warehouse, and the company has worked for years to make its pickers more productive.

At many warehouses, pickers walk miles each day in search of items, but algorithms provide them with the optimal route.

In the so-called robotics fulfillment centers like the one on Staten Island, the pickers are stationary and the robots deliver items to them. The company says these warehouses account for “more than 50” of its roughly 175 centers worldwide.

The robots have raised the average picker’s productivity from around 100 items per hour to what Mr. Long and others have said is a target of around 300 or 400, though the numbers vary across teams and facilities. The robots help explain why Amazon managed to ship more items than ever during last year’s holiday season with about 20 percent fewer seasonal workers than the year before. (Amazon said another reason was that it was focused more on permanent hiring in 2018.)

Robots have also made the job far more repetitive. Unlike pickers in manual warehouses, the pickers on Staten Island have almost no relief from plucking goods off shelves, other than their breaks. A picker named Shawn Chase said he motivated himself by competing with a friend in a different part of the warehouse to see who could earn the higher productivity ranking.

“Last week I was 41st in the building,” he said. “This week I’m trying to be top 10.” The company has taken this logic even further in a handful of warehouses, The Washington Post has reported, creating video-game interfaces that allow workers to accumulate points and badges for completing these tasks.

Amazon has periodically fueled rumors that it plans to fully automate picking in the near future, even sponsoring a contest for engineers who develop robotic picking arms. But the truth is that human pickers will be around for years.

According to Russ Meller, who runs a group that designs warehouses at the engineering consulting firm Fortna, it would be hard for a robotic picking arm to navigate the shelving units that carry goods around Amazon’s warehouse. The shelves are too large a target, and the bins may be too cramped or too deep. “They really complicated it for the robot,” said Mr. Meller, whose firm has not designed warehouses for Amazon.

In effect, Amazon calculated that there was so much productivity to be gained from reducing the millions of miles its workers walk each year that it was better off finding robots well suited to moving goods all those miles, not worrying whether the system would later be compatible with robotic pickers.

The difficulty of automating pickers puts pressure on the humans to become more productive. “We try to eliminate any wasted movement,” LeVar Kellogg, a picker who trains other pickers at an Amazon facility near Chicago, told me. “If you have one second that’s adding to the process, it doesn’t seem like a lot. But if you do that 1,000 times a day, that’s when it starts adding up.”

Sometimes these are strictly physical movements whose elimination almost no one would mourn. In other cases, the steps being removed involve thinking, too. Pickers at robotics facilities consult a monitor displaying a picture of the next screwdriver or watch or bottle of vitamins they’re supposed to grab, as well as its location on the shelving unit’s grid of bins. Some pickers have developed techniques for remembering this location, like yelling it out loud — 3F! 4H! — so they don’t have to glance back at the monitor multiple times.

But at the Amazon center on Staten Island, there is no need to remember the bin location. The bin holding the needed screwdriver or watch or bottle of vitamins simply lights up, turning the exercise into a gentle game of Whac-A-Mole.

This steady stripping of human judgment from work is one of the most widespread consequences of automation — not so much replacing people with robots as making them resemble robots. “The next pod comes, and a pod comes after that, and after that,” Mr. Long told me. “All day till you get off.”

A former worker at the Staten Island center portrayed the workplace as one where workers feel patronized and spied on. But in interviews, few seemed nostalgic for their old jobs.CreditHiroko Masuike/The New York Times

At Walmart, The Washington Post recently reported, machines are deciding when produce has become overripe, then summoning humans to replace it.

Or consider trucking. For generations, the typical trucker took pride in serving as the captain of the ship: deciding when to start and stop each day, the best way to reach a destination, how to deal with maintenance.

Today, trucking companies have removed much of this decision making from truckers, relying instead on algorithms that monitor fuel efficiency, idling time, location, braking and acceleration, and maintenance needs.

As with picking, trucking may be fully automated one day. In the meantime, said Karen Levy, a sociologist at Cornell University who has studied the trucking industry, “what you end up doing is making people better cogs.”

Few of the workers said they were nostalgic for their old employers. Mr. Chase, the picker with top-10 ambitions, said that his previous job, sorting mail for the Postal Service, had been “very tedious” and that his current work was fun by comparison.

Among the others I met that day were a former Uber driver, a former tollbooth cleaner and a former assistant deli manager at a supermarket. All said they had better health benefits at Amazon and made more money. Entry-level workers on Staten Island start at $17.50 per hour or more and get a raise every six months.

Mr. Waterman, the packer, previously worked in the frozen-food department of a grocery store. He said that in addition to earning better wages and benefits at Amazon, he appreciated having a more predictable schedule, and the way managers try to train struggling workers.

When I asked whether he could see any benefit to a union, Mr. Waterman told me, “The biggest benefit is job security.” He quickly added, “The managers here, they don’t want to fire people — they just want people to work hard.”

Professor Levy said workers facing employers preoccupied with efficiency often found ways to resist. She recalled a trucker who had figured out how to play solitaire on the computer that the company installed in his cab. “It was a super meaningful way for him to preserve a little bit of decisional autonomy,” she said.

Near the entrance of the Staten Island center is a wooden cart offering free fruit. It is accompanied by an appeal for restraint.CreditHiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Amazon workers, too, have resorted to small acts of rebellion. Near the entrance of the Staten Island center was a wooden cart with a big pile of bananas. A sign announced that the bananas were free (“Yes, Free!”), but with a caveat: “Please, take just one at a time,” the sign said. “Don’t go Bananas.”

I was standing about 15 feet away when I saw it: A woman walked by and grabbed two.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

A Machine May Not Take Your Job, but One Could Become Your Boss

When Conor Sprouls, a customer service representative in the call center of the insurance giant MetLife talks to a customer over the phone, he keeps one eye on the bottom-right corner of his screen. There, in a little blue box, A.I. tells him how he’s doing.

Talking too fast? The program flashes an icon of a speedometer, indicating that he should slow down.

Sound sleepy? The software displays an “energy cue,” with a picture of a coffee cup.

Not empathetic enough? A heart icon pops up.

For decades, people have fearfully imagined armies of hyper-efficient robots invading offices and factories, gobbling up jobs once done by humans. But in all of the worry about the potential of artificial intelligence to replace rank-and-file workers, we may have overlooked the possibility it will replace the bosses, too.

ImageWestlake Legal Group merlin_155473140_c3897504-d15d-4180-8e04-169fa6a5d95d-articleLarge A Machine May Not Take Your Job, but One Could Become Your Boss Workplace Hazards and Violations Workplace Environment Wages and Salaries Productivity MetLife Inc Labor and Jobs Executives and Management (Theory) Customer Relations Computers and the Internet Artificial Intelligence

The application Cogito on view on a monitor.CreditTony Luong for The New York Times

Mr. Sprouls and the other call center workers at his office in Warwick, R.I., still have plenty of human supervisors. But the software on their screens — made by Cogito, an A.I. company in Boston — has become a kind of adjunct manager, always watching them. At the end of every call, Mr. Sprouls’s Cogito notifications are tallied and added to a statistics dashboard that his supervisor can view. If he hides the Cogito window by minimizing it, the program notifies his supervisor.

Cogito is one of several A.I. programs used in call centers and other workplaces. The goal, according to Joshua Feast, Cogito’s chief executive, is to make workers more effective by giving them real-time feedback.

“There is variability in human performance,” Mr. Feast said. “We can infer from the way people are speaking with each other whether things are going well or not.”

The goal of automation has always been efficiency, but in this new kind of workplace, A.I. sees humanity itself as the thing to be optimized. Amazon uses complex algorithms to track worker productivity in its fulfillment centers, and can automatically generate the paperwork to fire workers who don’t meet their targets, as The Verge uncovered this year. (Amazon has disputed that it fires workers without human input, saying that managers can intervene in the process.) IBM has used Watson, its A.I. platform, during employee reviews to predict future performance and claims it has a 96 percent accuracy rate.

Then there are the start-ups. Cogito, which works with large insurance companies like MetLife and Humana as well as financial and retail firms, says it has 20,000 users. Percolata, a Silicon Valley company that counts Uniqlo and 7-Eleven among its clients, uses in-store sensors to calculate a “true productivity” score for each worker, and rank workers from most to least productive.

Samantha Sinon knitting while she waits for the next call at MetLife’s center in Warwick, R.I.CreditTony Luong for The New York Times Aaron Osei, another employee at the center.CreditTony Luong for The New York Times

Management by algorithm is not a new concept. In the early 20th century, Frederick Winslow Taylor revolutionized the manufacturing world with his “scientific management” theory, which tried to wring inefficiency out of factories by timing and measuring each aspect of a job. More recently, Uber, Lyft and other on-demand platforms have made billions of dollars by outsourcing conventional tasks of human resources — scheduling, payroll, performance reviews — to computers.

But using A.I. to manage workers in conventional, 9-to-5 jobs has been more controversial. Critics have accused companies of using algorithms for managerial tasks, saying that automated systems can dehumanize and unfairly punish employees. And while it’s clear why executives would want A.I. that can track everything their workers do, it’s less clear why workers would.

MetLife uses the A.I. software with 1,500 of its call center employees.CreditTony Luong for The New York Times

“It is surreal to think that any company could fire their own workers without any human involvement,” Marc Perrone, the president of United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents food and retail workers, said in a statement about Amazon in April.

In the gig economy, management by algorithm has also been a source of tension between workers and the platforms that connect them with customers. This year, drivers for Postmates, DoorDash and other on-demand delivery companies protested a method of calculating their pay, using an algorithm, that put customer tips toward guaranteed minimum wages — a practice that was nearly invisible to drivers, because of the way the platform obscures the details of worker pay.

There were no protests at MetLife’s call center. Instead, the employees I spoke with seemed to view their Cogito software as a mild annoyance at worst. Several said they liked getting pop-up notifications during their calls, although some said they had struggled to figure out how to get the “empathy” notification to stop appearing. (Cogito says the A.I. analyzes subtle differences in tone between the worker and the caller and encourages the worker to try to mirror the customer’s mood.)

MetLife, which uses the software with 1,500 of its call center employees, says using the app has increased its customer satisfaction by 13 percent.

Winners of contests and employee photos are pinned up in the office.CreditTony Luong for The New York Times A team performance board.CreditTony Luong for The New York Times

“It actually changes people’s behavior without them knowing about it,” said Christopher Smith, MetLife’s head of global operations. “It becomes a more human interaction.”

Still, there is a creepy sci-fi vibe to a situation in which A.I. surveils human workers and tells them how to relate to other humans. And it is reminiscent of the “workplace gamification” trend that swept through corporate America a decade ago, when companies used psychological tricks borrowed from video games, like badges and leader boards, to try to spur workers to perform better.

Phil Libin, the chief executive of All Turtles, an A.I. start-up studio in San Francisco, recoiled in horror when I told him about my call center visit.

“That is a dystopian hellscape,” Mr. Libin said. “Why would anyone want to build this world where you’re being judged by an opaque, black-box computer?”

Defenders of workplace A.I. might argue that these systems are not meant to be overbearing. Instead, they’re meant to make workers better by reminding them to thank the customer, to empathize with the frustrated claimant on Line 1 or to avoid slacking off on the job.

Icons that are used in Cogito are placed around the MetLife call center.CreditTony Luong for The New York Times

The best argument for workplace A.I. may be situations in which human bias skews decision-making, such as hiring. Pymetrics, a New York start-up, has made inroads in the corporate hiring world by replacing the traditional résumé screening process with an A.I. program that uses a series of games to test for relevant skills. The algorithms are then analyzed to make sure they are not creating biased hiring outcomes, or favoring one group over another.

“We can tweak data and algorithms until we can remove the bias. We can’t do that with a human being,” said Frida Polli, Pymetrics’ chief executive.

Using A.I. to correct for human biases is a good thing. But as more A.I. enters the workplace, executives will have to resist the temptation to use it to tighten their grip on their workers and subject them to constant surveillance and analysis. If that happens, it won’t be the robots staging an uprising.

Follow Kevin Roose on Twitter: @kevinroose.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

A.I. May Not Take Your Job, but It Could Become Your Boss

When Conor Sprouls, a customer service representative in the call center of the insurance giant MetLife talks to a customer over the phone, he keeps one eye on the bottom-right corner of his screen. There, in a little blue box, A.I. tells him how he’s doing.

Talking too fast? The program flashes an icon of a speedometer, indicating that he should slow down.

Sound sleepy? The software displays an “energy cue,” with a picture of a coffee cup.

Not empathetic enough? A heart icon pops up.

For decades, people have fearfully imagined armies of hyper-efficient robots invading offices and factories, gobbling up jobs once done by humans. But in all of the worry about the potential of artificial intelligence to replace rank-and-file workers, we may have overlooked the possibility it will replace the bosses, too.

ImageWestlake Legal Group merlin_155473140_c3897504-d15d-4180-8e04-169fa6a5d95d-articleLarge A.I. May Not Take Your Job, but It Could Become Your Boss Workplace Hazards and Violations Workplace Environment Wages and Salaries Productivity MetLife Inc Labor and Jobs Executives and Management (Theory) Customer Relations Computers and the Internet Artificial Intelligence

The application Cogito on view on a monitor.CreditTony Luong for The New York Times

Mr. Sprouls and the other call center workers at his office in Warwick, R.I., still have plenty of human supervisors. But the software on their screens — made by Cogito, an A.I. company in Boston — has become a kind of adjunct manager, always watching them. At the end of every call, Mr. Sprouls’s Cogito notifications are tallied and added to a statistics dashboard that his supervisor can view. If he hides the Cogito window by minimizing it, the program notifies his supervisor.

Cogito is one of several A.I. programs used in call centers and other workplaces. The goal, according to Joshua Feast, Cogito’s chief executive, is to make workers more effective by giving them real-time feedback.

“There is variability in human performance,” Mr. Feast said. “We can infer from the way people are speaking with each other whether things are going well or not.”

The goal of automation has always been efficiency, but in this new kind of workplace, A.I. sees humanity itself as the thing to be optimized. Amazon uses complex algorithms to track worker productivity in its fulfillment centers, and can automatically generate the paperwork to fire workers who don’t meet their targets, as The Verge uncovered this year. (Amazon has disputed that it fires workers without human input, saying that managers can intervene in the process.) IBM has used Watson, its A.I. platform, during employee reviews to predict future performance and claims it has a 96 percent accuracy rate.

Then there are the start-ups. Cogito, which works with large insurance companies like MetLife and Humana as well as financial and retail firms, says it has 20,000 users. Percolata, a Silicon Valley company that counts Uniqlo and 7-Eleven among its clients, uses in-store sensors to calculate a “true productivity” score for each worker, and rank workers from most to least productive.

Samantha Sinon knitting while she waits for the next call at MetLife’s center in Warwick, R.I.CreditTony Luong for The New York Times Aaron Osei, another employee at the center.CreditTony Luong for The New York Times

Management by algorithm is not a new concept. In the early 20th century, Frederick Winslow Taylor revolutionized the manufacturing world with his “scientific management” theory, which tried to wring inefficiency out of factories by timing and measuring each aspect of a job. More recently, Uber, Lyft and other on-demand platforms have made billions of dollars by outsourcing conventional tasks of human resources — scheduling, payroll, performance reviews — to computers.

But using A.I. to manage workers in conventional, 9-to-5 jobs has been more controversial. Critics have accused companies of using algorithms for managerial tasks, saying that automated systems can dehumanize and unfairly punish employees. And while it’s clear why executives would want A.I. that can track everything their workers do, it’s less clear why workers would.

MetLife uses the A.I. software with 1,500 of its call center employees.CreditTony Luong for The New York Times

“It is surreal to think that any company could fire their own workers without any human involvement,” Marc Perrone, the president of United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents food and retail workers, said in a statement about Amazon in April.

In the gig economy, management by algorithm has also been a source of tension between workers and the platforms that connect them with customers. This year, drivers for Postmates, DoorDash and other on-demand delivery companies protested a method of calculating their pay, using an algorithm, that put customer tips toward guaranteed minimum wages — a practice that was nearly invisible to drivers, because of the way the platform obscures the details of worker pay.

There were no protests at MetLife’s call center. Instead, the employees I spoke with seemed to view their Cogito software as a mild annoyance at worst. Several said they liked getting pop-up notifications during their calls, although some said they had struggled to figure out how to get the “empathy” notification to stop appearing. (Cogito says the A.I. analyzes subtle differences in tone between the worker and the caller and encourages the worker to try to mirror the customer’s mood.)

MetLife, which uses the software with 1,500 of its call center employees, says using the app has increased its customer satisfaction by 13 percent.

Winners of contests and employee photos are pinned up in the office.CreditTony Luong for The New York Times A team performance board.CreditTony Luong for The New York Times

“It actually changes people’s behavior without them knowing about it,” said Christopher Smith, MetLife’s head of global operations. “It becomes a more human interaction.”

Still, there is a creepy sci-fi vibe to a situation in which A.I. surveils human workers and tells them how to relate to other humans. And it is reminiscent of the “workplace gamification” trend that swept through corporate America a decade ago, when companies used psychological tricks borrowed from video games, like badges and leader boards, to try to spur workers to perform better.

Phil Libin, the chief executive of All Turtles, an A.I. start-up studio in San Francisco, recoiled in horror when I told him about my call center visit.

“That is a dystopian hellscape,” Mr. Libin said. “Why would anyone want to build this world where you’re being judged by an opaque, black-box computer?”

Defenders of workplace A.I. might argue that these systems are not meant to be overbearing. Instead, they’re meant to make workers better by reminding them to thank the customer, to empathize with the frustrated claimant on Line 1 or to avoid slacking off on the job.

Icons that are used in Cogito are placed around the MetLife call center.CreditTony Luong for The New York Times

The best argument for workplace A.I. may be situations in which human bias skews decision-making, such as hiring. Pymetrics, a New York start-up, has made inroads in the corporate hiring world by replacing the traditional résumé screening process with an A.I. program that uses a series of games to test for relevant skills. The algorithms are then analyzed to make sure they are not creating biased hiring outcomes, or favoring one group over another.

“We can tweak data and algorithms until we can remove the bias. We can’t do that with a human being,” said Frida Polli, Pymetrics’ chief executive.

Using A.I. to correct for human biases is a good thing. But as more A.I. enters the workplace, executives will have to resist the temptation to use it to tighten their grip on their workers and subject them to constant surveillance and analysis. If that happens, it won’t be the robots staging an uprising.

Follow Kevin Roose on Twitter: @kevinroose.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Alison Wolf: The Augar Review takes productivity, Industrial Strategy and skills seriously. Will the new Prime Minister listen?

Alison Wolf is professor of public sector management at King’s College London and a cross-bench peer. She was a member of the Post-18 Review of Education and Funding Independent Panel (the Augar Review) but writes in a personal capacity.

Last week, the Prime Minister launched the Augar Review of Post-18 Education and Funding. Her speech strongly endorsed some of its major recommendations, notably for further education. The media in the room duly directed their questions to issues affecting universities, ignoring the ‘other 50 per cent’ who don’t head straight to higher education. Wider media coverage also focused overwhelmingly on university fees, while various university bodies piled in with criticisms.

There was, meanwhile, near total radio silence from the main Conservative leadership contenders. As a member of the Augar panel, I’m personally relieved that they stayed quiet. A new government does not need expensive ill-understood commitments or ‘not on my patch’ promises, sparked during the campaign by lobbying or leading media questions. However, Augar addresses major issues, affecting our entire population, with large price tags attached. These will be waiting for the next Prime Minister.

A Westminster village take is that the Review was a panic-stricken response to Jeremy Corbyn’s promise to abolish university fees; and that with Labour also languishing among young voters, it’s no longer really relevant. That’s completely wrong. Our technical and adult education are in crisis. There is a growing gap between what the labour market demands and what post-18 education supplies. And polls and focus groups alike show strong public support for vocational and technical provision.

Augar provides what it says on the tin: a review of all post-18 education, and how to pay for it. And the review panel discovered that technical and further education were in even worse shape than any of us had realised. Courses teaching technician and advanced craft skills are vanishing from English education at speed, even though the economy is crying out for these skills. Today’s young people are effectively offered a single choice. A full degree, now – or nothing.

Overall, Augar’s recommendations are designed to reverse this idiocy, and to do so at little extra cost to the Exchequer. But of course, they are made within a wider fiscal context. A new Prime Minister will be heavily lobbied by the powerful education lobbies who represent universities and schools, and are focused on an imminent spending review.

Back in 2010, English universities got a major boost in their finances. Student fees of £9000 (now £9250) gave them a big increase in income per student. Universities have generally had an excellent decade, as one of the best-resourced systems in the world. They have also cemented their position among the world’s very best for quality and research productivity, and are enormously attractive to overseas students, who bring in over £15 billion a year in fees and other spending.

Compare this with the rest of education (let alone with social care). In schools, real spending in the sixth form has fallen by more than 20 per cent per student. Spending on 5 – 16 year olds has meanwhile been held fairly constant in real terms: but costs have risen faster than inflation, so there are plenty of school horror stories with which to fill the pages – and no doubt many more to come before the autumn spending review.

As for further education, which serves the whole non-university adult population from 18 to 85 plus, its funding has been devastated. The core adult education and skills budget has fallen by 45 per cent in real terms since 2010, student numbers have plummeted, and public spending per student is more than six times as high in universities as it is in the nation’s colleges.

This imbalance looks even harder to justify in the light of regional inequalities. Among young people in their late 20s, over half of the London-schooled went to university: it’s under 30 per cent in the North East and the South West. Except in London, young women are enormously and increasingly more likely to attend university than young men. So among young men in the North East, only one in five went on to university; in the South West, less than a quarter. The country’s single-minded determination to reach ‘50 per cent in HE’ has left a lot of people behind with no good alternatives.

Unfortunately, reform will face an additional obstacle this autumn. Universities’ good fortune – which they are, very naturally, defending – was fuelled by an illusion, and the Treasury is now facing the washback from its too-clever-by-half fiscal trick.

Sean Coughlan, the BBC’s education correspondent, described this far more vividly than we did, when he asked, last year: How can you lend someone almost £120 billion and not have a hole in your budget? Or how can you give out £17 billion, only receive back £3 billion and not be any worse off? Answer: When you’re the government and it’s the student loans system.

Student fees are paid to universities through a loan mechanism, and the Treasury decided that loans didn’t need to appear on the books as spending: after all, they would be repaid. But of course, that wasn’t actually true – only some of them would be. Under England’s ‘income contingent’ system, people, rightly, only pay education loans back as and when they earn a certain amount, and a lot will never be repaid. In his 2018 fiscal sustainability report, the head of the Office for Budget Responsibility observed that “The loan book is large and growing rapidly…the value of the outstanding loan book is set to rise to around 20 per cent of GDP by the 2040s.’

The Office for National Statistics has now called time on this piece of creative accounting. The money that won’t be repaid will have to be accounted for; and so a large part of the universities’ budget will be back on the table in the next spending review, to be fought over rather than safely ring-fenced as not really spending at all.

Until Corbyn suddenly launched his ‘no fees’ policy, there was, finally, a cross-party consensus in this country: the costs of higher education should be shared between the student and the taxpayer, the individual and the community. Politicians should be reassured that there is also strong support for this position in the population at large.

But things do need to be paid for. And in the super-complex world of education financing, it is essentially impossible to change anything without someone losing – and finding some moral high ground from which to attack the change. Augar does its sums and recommends more money for the neediest – cash to get FE back on its feet, to invigorate technical education, to allow adults to retrain and progress, and to reinstate maintenance grants for the poorest students. Its analysis takes productivity, skills gaps and the Industrial Strategy seriously. Come the autumn, we will find out whether a new government does the same.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Job Growth Underscores Economy’s Vigor; Unemployment at Half-Century Low

Westlake Legal Group job-growth-underscores-economys-vigor-unemployment-at-half-century-low Job Growth Underscores Economy’s Vigor; Unemployment at Half-Century Low Wages and Salaries United States Economy Unemployment Trump, Donald J Productivity Labor Department (US) Labor and Jobs Interest Rates Inflation (Economics) Hiring and Promotion

The unemployment rate fell to its lowest level in half a century last month, capping the longest streak of job creation in modern times and dispelling recession fears that haunted Wall Street at the start of the year.

The Labor Department reported Friday that employers added 263,000 jobs in April, well above what analysts had forecast. The unemployment rate sank to 3.6 percent.

Employment has grown for more than 100 months in a row, and the economy has created more than 20 million jobs since the Great Recession ended in 2009. Much of that upturn occurred before President Trump was elected, but the obvious strength of the economy now enables him and fellow Republicans to make it their central argument in the 2020 campaign.

For all the signs that the economy is humming, the current expansion doesn’t resemble past booms. The scars of the Great Recession run deep, and even after 10 years of growth, the kind of euphoria that marked the technology sector in the late 1990s or the real estate market in the 2000s is conspicuously absent.

The pace of the current recovery has been weaker than during periods like the 1990s, which is among the reasons wage gains were so tepid until recently. It even prompted some economists to assert that a subdued economy was the new normal.

But the upside of slower growth during the last 10 years may be a longer, more durable expansion, said Michael Gapen, chief United States economist at Barclays. Consumers have been wary of borrowing to the hilt as they did before 2008, while businesses have been cautious about expanding too quickly.

The April data show little threat of troublesome inflation or other signs of excess. The length of the average workweek actually fell, while wage growth for the month was slightly below what was expected. Still, with average hourly earnings up 3.2 percent from a year ago, ordinary workers are finally sharing in the economy’s bounty.

[The continued boom in the American job market suggests that economic policymakers need to be open about when the lessons of history no longer apply, says The Upshot’s economics correspondent.]

The not-too-hot, not-too-cold report was warmly received on Wall Street, where the S&P 500 closed up nearly 1 percent on Friday.

“We can all agree that AMERICA is now #1. We are the ENVY of the WORLD — and the best is yet to come!” Mr. Trump declared Friday on Twitter.

For policymakers at the Federal Reserve, the jobs report will most likely serve as another piece of evidence in favor of leaving interest rates unchanged, a stand that the Fed chairman, Jerome H. Powell, reiterated this week.

Mr. Trump has said the Fed should cut rates, and Vice President Mike Pence made the argument again on Friday, citing low inflation. But Mr. Powell and his colleagues have repeatedly said they will not be swayed by political considerations.

“The U.S. economy is in a very good place,” the Fed vice chairman, Richard Clarida, said in the text of remarks that he delivered on Friday. He also said recent employment gains appeared to be sustainable and were not a sign of an overheating economy.

As recently as the start of this year, investors were worried that the economy could falter because of headwinds like a slowdown in Europe, the trade war with China and Brexit. This report should put those fears to bed — at least for the time being.

“It’s much more exciting than anyone had expected,” said Torsten Slok, chief international economist at Deutsche Bank. “No matter how you slice and dice this, it looks like the economy is doing fine.”

“It doesn’t mean these risks are gone, but it seems like the economy is rebounding from the turbulence of the first quarter,” he added.

Despite the bright picture over all, there were pockets of weakness. Retail employment fell for the third month in a row as stores closed because consumers are increasingly shopping on the internet.

There was also a big drop in the number of people who said they were looking for work. The labor-force participation rate, which measures the share of those 16 and older who are employed or seeking work, sank to 62.8 percent, from 63 percent in March.

That helped reduce the unemployment rate to the lowest level since December 1969.

[Here’s a primer on where the numbers come from and what they mean.]

“The drop in the unemployment rate was encouraging, but it was for bad reasons,” said Michelle Meyer, head of United States economics at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. “The lower participation rate is a little bit of a disappointment, but it’s a volatile number.”

Some economists think the jobless rate will keep dropping.

“I think the unemployment rate could drop toward 3 percent,” Mr. Gapen said. That’s a level last seen in the wake of the Korean War in 1953, and he believes it will happen because employers hire more people, not because people drop out of the work force.

ImageWestlake Legal Group merlin_153105906_6b7afdd5-7bb5-4425-ae21-69053e5c5935-articleLarge Job Growth Underscores Economy’s Vigor; Unemployment at Half-Century Low Wages and Salaries United States Economy Unemployment Trump, Donald J Productivity Labor Department (US) Labor and Jobs Interest Rates Inflation (Economics) Hiring and Promotion

A job fair in Miami last month. Businesses have shrugged off international tensions and slowing global growth, which were seen as headwinds a few months ago.CreditJoe Raedle/Getty Images

The professional and business services sector led the pack in growth, adding 76,000 positions. Diane Swonk, chief economist at Grant Thornton, said the white-collar hiring reflected the adoption of new technologies in workplaces.

“These people are handling the logistics of implementing this stuff,” forcing businesses to hire more administrative and support workers, Ms. Swonk said. “These are not the kind of admin jobs like we used to have. They’ve moved up significantly in terms of skills.”

In Chicago, HealthJoy added 14 employees in April, bringing its hiring for the year to 36, said Justin Holland, the company’s founder and chief executive. His goal is 250 hires for the year. HealthJoy offers a mobile app that helps employees better navigate their health benefits.

But Mr. Holland said filling positions like data engineers and software developers hadn’t been easy.

“A lot of large companies have moved here and are just sucking up talent,” he said. Mr. Holland is also considering workers who might not have been as appealing a decade ago. “I don’t look at a college degree as a gatekeeper,” he said.

[One challenge in the economic recovery has been to provide better-paid jobs to workers without a bachelor’s degree. Here’s where to find them.]

Second looks aren’t limited to potential tech hires, and that’s encouraging workers who might have been passed over before to seek jobs. At Indeed, the job-search site, searches with the term “felony friendly” are up 37 percent since last May, while “no background check” is up 148 percent.

To lure workers, employers have been dangling some notable perks, said Amy Glaser, a senior vice president at the staffing company Adecco. Among them are upgraded cafeterias, day care, and subsidies for essentials like gas and parking. Call-center managers are letting more employees work from home.

“The candidates are 100 percent in the driver’s seat,” she said. “If employers don’t respond to job applicants in 48 hours, they’re gone. Somebody else has called with a better offer. Or if you schedule an interview too far out, they ghost you.”

Jeanna Smialek contributed reporting.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com