Some days the robot future feels closer than others. At the annual Google developer jamboree in California last week, the tech giant wowed the audience with the language skills of its virtual assistant software, now so fluent it can make calls without the recipient realising the voice does not belong to a human.
It’s a long way from Silicon Valley to Swansea, where less than a fortnight ago nearly 800 call centre workers were blindsided by Virgin Media’s surprise decision to pull out of Wales’s second-largest city in 2019. While Virgin did not blame the march of #technology for the decision to close its Swansea base, the move is symptomatic of dramatic changes sweeping the UK customer services industry.
Carolyn Harris, the Labour MP for Swansea East, said that the loss of a prominent employer was a blow to the local economy that, over the years, has become reliant on call-centre jobs.
“I am absolutely devastated for my city,” said Harris. “There are people who have built their lives and employment with the company.”
There are currently about 6,200 customer-service centres in the UK employing nearly 1.3 million people. But that workforce is increasingly finding itself facing the vanguard of structural change in important sectors such as retail, as companies and consumers embrace the new digital technologies that firms such as Google are pioneering.
ContactBabel, the customer-service centres expert, predicts that 45,700 jobs will disappear from the sector between now and 2021. Of those, 20,000 are projected to go from the 168,000 employed to handle customer relations by high street retailers and distribution firms, as shoppers increasingly buy and interact online.
The prediction for the finance sector – which with nearly 230,000 staff is the biggest customer-service centre employer – is also grim. Nearly 13,000 jobs are expected to go as banks and insurers reconfigure their businesses. The digital revolution is also expected to affect utility companies, with 11,000 jobs expected to go as challenger brands such as Lumo offer cheaper gas and electricity deals to customers willing to manage their accounts via an app.