Cutbacks in one sector are offset by expansion in another. The jobs outlook is brighter than for some time - if you're flexible.
For decades, even centuries, automation has hung like a Damoclean sword over the ordinary worker. One day, the nightmare goes, you won't be needed any more; everything will be done by machine. And today, as the dawn of the 21st century approaches, machines of ever-increasing sophistication are indeed taking over the jobs of labourers, craftsmen, clerks, managers. The industrial age is over. The computer revolution is here.
And yet, even as the ranks of job-seekers are swelled by more and more women, liberated from domestic stereotype, the unemployment apocalypse never quite arrives. In fact, even after you've scraped off the official gloss, the outlook for jobs is brighter than for some time.
Take telecommunications. Here, surely, is an industry of the moment, and of the future? Not necessarily for jobs it isn't. At British Telecom, one of the most successful privatisations of this or any other government, the workforce has shrunk from 245,000 in 1990 to just over 134,000 today. The reason is twofold. A large proportion of the 1990 workforce consisted of engineers who repaired the thousands of telephone exchanges scattered around the country. It was a time-consuming, labour-intensive job, and it no longer exists. The exchange equipment of the 1990s is computerised; it has no moving parts. Those telephone engineers are as redundant as miners without mines.
Other jobs in BT have gone the same way. Between 1992 and 1994, when the total job loss was 52,000, nearly half were engineers. But the computerisation of directory enquiries meant that 10,000 operators were no longer needed either. And with fewer manual staff employed, cuts in clerical numbers came too - 7,400 of them. And with fewer staff to manage, BT needed fewer managers - 6,000 in fact.
But there was another major reason for BT's job losses, and that was the competition. At the last count, there were 139 competitors to BT, according to Francis Woollen, telecommunications analyst at UBS; and he reckons that the growth of that competition has already compensated for the job losses at BT. Woollen identifies cable television as BT's most serious long-term competitor. As the number of homes with cable increases, more and more people will opt to have their telephone service by cable. For connoisseurs of future culture this means, of course, that we are very close to that peculiar moment when we will be able to see the person on the other end of the phone. For city-dwellers with more prosaic concerns, cable has the simple advantage that, because its costs are shared, it is cheaper. Cable networks should cover 80% of the UK population within 10 years.
The Cable Communications Association reckons to be creating 10 new jobs every working day. By the end of this year, the industry expects to be directly employing 17,000; two years hence, 25,000. Subcontracted work could take that jobs total to around 40,000.
But as cable becomes more popular, and creates more jobs, will BT lose market share, and shed jobs? Up to a point, this seems bound to happen. The difficulty about predicting the overall effect on jobs is that every technological development brings new implications - and new opportunities for the enterprising entrepreneur. A small Hampshire-based company provides a perfect example.
Roger Holness and Frank Brewster were approaching their 50th birthdays when they were made redundant by Marconi. Having served a combined total of 37 years with the company, and reached senior management level, neither would have considered himself a natural entrepreneur. But as Holness says, 'We started looking across the table at each other, and we began to realise that we had to do something. We had a lot of accumulated knowledge, and we were prepared to listen and learn from anybody.' The inspiration came from their experience with satellite television and, in particular, with the 'low-noise boxes' with which each dish is equipped. These contraptions, which unscramble the satellite signals and convert them into sound and pictures, are exposed to the elements and easily damaged. Three years ago, when this happened, the boxes would be thrown away and replaced - an expensive business. Holness and Brewster examined them and decided it would be feasible to repair damaged boxes. Their company, South Coast Technology, is now refurbishing low-noise boxes in shipments of 1,000 a week. It employs 24 people - mostly skilled electronics engineers.
If sales of satellite dishes continue to grow, the company might soon employ 100 people; or if the cable revolution gathers pace, and people get their satellite TV by cable from a central source, there might be a dramatic fall-off in dish sales. But by then South Coast Technology may have discovered another niche market.
One lesson from an industry like telecommunications is that with the target constantly moving, prediction is well-nigh impossible. Nonetheless, Francis Woollen sees all sorts of possibilities. 'People forget, but a few years ago California was suffering from the loss of defence jobs. Now the service sector just seems to go on expanding. And of course, there's Hollywood. Well, why shouldn't we have our own Hollywood? There's bound to be demand for all sorts of local TV content.' The great lesson is that however influential technology may be, and it has certainly played a crucial part in the decline of manufacturing employment, it is human enterprise and ways of living that decide where and how we work now and in the future. The bare figures, as revealed by Warwick University's Institute for Employment Research, show our adaptability. Between 1991 and 1994, Britain lost almost 400,000 manufacturing jobs. Although that decline is expected to slow (the institute forecasts a further fall of 200,000 between 1994 and 2001), productivity gains should ensure that the graph continues downwards. But these losses are being more than offset by the accelerating growth in the service sector. Hotels and catering, health and education are expected to lead the way, with the retail sector not far behind.
In retailing the picture has long been focused on how the large chains, with their out-of-town superstores and obsessive cost-control, have effectively destroyed the old skills of the small retailers by replacing them with low-paid, repetitive 'MacJobs'. Traditional high-street traders are certainly suffering from the onward march of the superstores. But the demise of the town's butchers, cobblers and other tradespeople has been more than compensated for by ever-growing consumer choice, offering new outlets for growers of fruit, mushrooms, herbs and other produce, as well as an impressive increase in the overall number of jobs. According to independent research by London Economics, commissioned by Tesco, employment in grocery retailing has grown by about 12% since 1983 - equivalent to 50,000 new jobs.
The received wisdom is that these new jobs are for check-out girls and shelf-stackers, overwhelmingly low-paid and female. Certainly the majority of the new staff are female, but the main expansion both at Tesco and Asda has been in fresh food and this requires the hiring of suitably trained butchers, bakers and fishmongers.
It's not only the service industries that are changing their employment patterns. Even in manufacturing, apparently the main loser in the jobs revolution, attitudes are changing so fast that economic trends can quite suddenly be overturned. The latest CBI industrial trends survey shows cutbacks in food, drink and tobacco, paper and printing, cars and aerospace, but new jobs in mechanical engineering and metal products. And most of them are being created in small companies.
Much has also changed in the public sector. The old demarcation lines between the different types of job have more than disappeared. Unison, the largest public-sector union, now operates a 'return to learn' scheme to re-train people who have been made redundant. Most of their schemes are sponsored, at least in part, by employers - so that individuals are trained in the skills that are going to make them most employable.
As workers increasingly understand the flexibility required of them to be employable, so employers are prepared to change their perceptions of what they should require from their workforces. The trend, as the jargon has it, is for 'multi-skilling'. What the employer wants is people who can move from one job to another, responding to customer demands. The more they know about the business, the better.
Enlightened organisations are reluctant, for example, to lose an employee's expertise simply because she opts for motherhood. The Abbey National (see box) has gone to great lengths to retain its best female employees. So it allows women to share jobs or work part-time without losing status. Female progress has been dramatic in recent years, with women moving from 23% of middle management jobs in 1991 to 40% in 1994. Senior management positions remain male dominated, but the female percentage has gone up from 12 to 21% over the same period.
There is also an increasing reluctance to dispense with older employees. Jim Hillage, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Employment Studies, says that whereas the number of employees aged 16-34 will fall by one-and-half-million by the year 2006, the number of over-35s will rise by three million. The cult of youth may be over.
It all fits a formula coined two years ago at Harvard Business School by Rosabeth Moss Kanter. 'If security no longer comes from being employed,' she says, 'it must come from being employable.' Or, as Charles Handy puts it in The Empty Raincoat, we must become 'portfolio workers', carrying our skills with us and building up a portfolio of work, like a film star, freelance journalist, consultant or expert in almost any field.
This does not mean that the future is necessarily self-employment. By 2001 the number of self-employed will have risen from 12% of the workforce to 13.5%, according to the Institute of Employment Studies. The picture, instead, is of a fluid jobs market in which large, unwieldy companies periodically streamline themselves and shed staff, while small, dynamic companies are created every day, using the skills of a select band of workers and creating niche markets for themselves in ways so various as to be almost entirely unpredictable. It seems entirely consistent with this vision of the future that the Government should have abolished the Department of Employment. Those searching for official clues to where tomorrow's jobs might come from, are referred to the DTI's White Paper on Competitiveness. If British enterprises and their workforces are internationally competitive, jobs are not going to disappear.