Hospitality, sports and recreation, and parts of manufacturing are the sectors most likely to face widespread job losses as Covid-19 accelerates automation, a major new report warns.

Who Is At Risk? by the RSA (royal society for arts, manufactures and commerce) explores how the pandemic is accelerating trends to automation, finding changing consumer trends, public health measures, and the cost of labour in a pandemic, are all aiding the rise of the robots.

Covid-19 could especially exacerbate the trend to automation in sectors including accommodation, food and beverage services, clothing manufacturing and sports activities, the report finds.

But the study’s authors warn that many “viable jobs” could be lost too.

For instance, workers in sectors such as entertainment and the arts are struggling under Covid-19, yet these jobs are likely to prove to be automation-proof in the future.

70% of jobs in the creative arts were furloughed, the report finds, but the sector has a low automation risk and the number of jobs increased 35% from 2011 to 2019, one of the fastest in the last decade.

Conversely, government support has temporarily extended the shelf-life of some jobs which are unviable long-term, and could give employees a false sense of security about their job’s long-term potential.

The RSA uses HMRC data on furlough take up alongside ONS data on automation likelihood and a range of other indicators to create a ‘risk register’ of jobs:


  • High Covid-19, high automation risk. These industries tend to have high levels of young workers (under 30). Workers are also more likely to be men, tend to be lower paid and are less likely to have higher levels of education. 17 percent of employment. Includes industries such as hospitality, sports and recreation, and parts of manufacturing and construction.  
  • High Covid-19, low-medium automation risk. Workers in these industries are also more likely to be men but are relatively well paid and have higher levels of education. 10 percent of employment. Includes industries such as air travel and tourism, creative arts and entertainment, architecture, film production, museums and culture.  
  • Low-medium Covid-19, high automation risk. Overall, these industries are relatively gender balanced. Workers tend to be lower paid and are less likely to have higher levels of education. 17 percent of employment. Includes some key worker industries such as retail, food production, residential care and postal and courier activities.   
  • Low Covid-19, low automation risk. Overall workers in the most resilient industries are more likely to be women, tend to be well paid and have high levels of education. 35 percent of employment. Includes industries such as scientific research, healthcare and education as well as some male dominated industries such as computer programming.   

Sectors at risk from both Covid-19 and automation

Industry Furlough Scheme Take-up  Automation risk score
Food and beverage service activities 77% 63
Accommodation 80% 60
Manufacture of clothes 74% 54
Other personal service activities 70% 54
Services to buildings and landscape 40% 54
Land transport including via pipelines 38% 52
Manufacture of furniture 77% 51
Sports, amusement, recreation 71% 49
Manufacture of vehicles and trailers 72% 49
Manufacture of fabricated metal prods, excluding machinery 50% 49


The second wave is likely to see this trend continue, the report warns, as five years of digital transformation have occurred in the last months in sectors such as retail: online sales grew from 20% percent to 29% percent between February and July this year, compared to 12% to 20% between 2015 and 2020.

For instance, in retail and hospitality, new technology is being adopted at pace. Amazon Go’s ‘just walk out’ technology — which the company is introducing in the UK — eliminates the need for checkouts and checkout operators through extensive scanners in store.

Meanwhile Hong Kong hotels are using robots to deliver room service, McDonalds is piloting voice-activated drive-ins, and burger-flipping androids cost as little as $3 per hour.

The RSA calls for:

  • Targeted support to protect jobs at risk of Covid-19: The UK government should modify its Job Support Scheme (JSS) and introduce a two-track system based on the French ‘partial activity’ scheme. Alongside the existing national JSS scheme, this would see an alternative pathway for businesses in the most at-risk sectors, with reduced employer contributions. As a condition for long-term support, this pathway should also require  any firm with more than 20 workers to introduce a works council.
  • Transition services for workers at risk of Covid-19 and automation: The government should introduce an end-to-end ‘transition service that redeploys the most at-risk workers into sectors that are more resilient, modelled on Swedish Job Security Councils (JSC). These workers could then be provided with a transitional basic income to support them financially as they retrain.
  • Upskilling workers at risk of automation: The government should introduce personal learning accounts to futureproof roles in sectors at high risk of automation, particularly those that have experienced good growth since the pandemic.


Fabian Wallace-Stephensreport author and senior researcher at the RSA, said: 

“Covid-19 is accelerating the rise of the robots — with some sectors seeing five years of digital transformation in five months alone — but the government’s response to the pandemic risks us losing many ‘automation-proof’ jobs.

“The arts and entertainment, travel and tourism, and the creative industries, are likely to be important areas for jobs growth in the future, but need more support throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Likewise, many workers who need to be retrained may be lulled into a false sense of security by the current pandemic. For instance, we saw increased demand for supermarket workers during the first lockdown, but technology such as Amazon’s checkout-free stores could prove to be a gamechanger in the second wave.

“Let’s help everyone pursue good work in an age of technological change. We need targeted support for at-risk sectors with a long-term future, better support for workers including ‘job security councils’, and more retraining.”


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