The state should work with business to help the UK maximise the benefits of automation and other technological changes, Jeremy Corbyn has said.
The Labour leader said he was not “one of the doom-mongers” who thought new technology would “inevitably herald an era of mass unemployment”.
But he argued that adapting the UK for the jobs of the future “can’t simply be left to the market”.
A recent report suggested robots could affect 30% of British jobs by 2030.
The PwC study estimated that nearly a third of existing jobs in the UK were potentially under threat from automation, compared with 38% in the US and 21% in Japan, with manufacturing and retail at the greatest risk.
“Technological change, from automation to decarbonisation, means many jobs and industries will disappear or shrink in the coming years and decades,” Mr Corbyn told business leaders in London.
“At every stage of economic and industrial history, jobs, industries and skills have been lost, replaced and transformed.
“But when that happens at huge social cost, as it did for example in the very early days of the industrial revolution… people in desperation opposed mechanisation and opposed the bringing in of machines because they got no benefit from it.”
He added: “We can’t simply leave it to the market.”
Instead, the public sector should “work with business to manage the social and economic effects of rapid technological change”.
Rejecting a pessimistic view of increasing automation, Mr Corbyn told the British Chambers of Commerce annual conference: “As with every other technological revolution, disappearing jobs will be replaced with new, as yet unforeseen forms of work.”
‘Step change in skills’
In its election manifesto, Labour promised that if it won power all further education courses would be free as part of a new national education service, with fees for adult education courses scrapped.
Mr Corbyn called for a “step-change in skills and training”, with anyone able to retrain at any point in their life.
He also said there had been a “deep-rooted historical snobbishness” towards technical subjects.
Mr Corbyn said there had been a “lost decade” in terms of wages and output and argued that businesses would prosper if education was “given laser-like attention by a committed government”.
The Conservatives have set a goal of creating three million new apprenticeships by 2020 as part of efforts to address skills gaps which British business has warned is holding the country back.
To help pay for this, firms with a pay bill of £3m have had to pay an apprenticeship levy since April.
Among the other speakers was Education Secretary Justine Greening, who told the conference that technical and further education needed more support and investment.
“A skills revolution needs a technical education revolution,” she said, calling on businesses to support so-called “T-level” technical qualifications in England and work placements.