Headcount at Vodafone's UK business fell by around 850 jobs in the last fiscal year, or about 7% of total roles, as the operator continued to pursue cost savings while the outlook for sales growth remained weak.
Figures made available in the company's just-published annual report for the year ending in March 2019 show the UK business employed an average of 11,525 people, down from 12,379 in the previous fiscal year. Headcount has now fallen by around 1,700 jobs during the past two fiscal years, equaling about 13% of the figure for the year ending in March 2017.
While Vodafone does not indicate which roles disappeared, its investments in automated systems are likely to have had some impact on parts of the workforce. Among these are an automated customer services assistant called TOBi, powered by IBM's Watson artificial intelligence technology.
The operator has previously played down suggestions that automation will lead to widespread job losses, arguing its main objective is to simplify processes and improve services for customers.
But it also acknowledged that TOBi would have an impact on staff in customer service roles and last September launched an initiative known as "Code Ready," which offers existing customer service agents the opportunity to retrain as software coders.
Senior executives were unable to say how many employees had enrolled in the program during a breakfast briefing with reporters in March, and there is no mention of Code Ready in the latest annual report.
Vodafone is now deploying TOBi in Italy, where in March it revealed plans to cut around 1,130 jobs in the face of "extraordinary competitive pressure." The operator employed an average of 6,536 people at its Italian business in the last fiscal year, down slightly from 6,606 in the previous one.
The company's Spanish subsidiary is also preparing for a major round of layoffs after warning in January that around 1,200 jobs might disappear as it takes steps to cope with a sharp fall in sales and underlying profit. Vodafone Spain employed 5,140 people in the recent fiscal year, up slightly from 5,015 in the one before.
Neil Blagden, Vodafone UK's director of digital and commercial operations, told reporters last September that TOBi could eventually be introduced across various of the operator's international subsidiaries.
Overall headcount at Vodafone Group has fallen sharply from 106,135 to 98,996 people in the past two fiscal years, with hefty cuts at the operator's now discontinued Indian business largely responsible for the drop.
Vodafone India last year merged with local rival Idea Cellular to form an industry giant in which Vodafone holds a 45.2% stake. While Vodafone Idea is listed as a separate entity, Vodafone's annual report shows that employee numbers in India fell from 11,086 to 4,554 over the period in question.
The annual report also indicates that staff reductions happened across all three of Vodafone's broad departmental categories -- operations, selling and distribution, and customer care and administration.
Operations shrank by 7%, to 15,872 employees, while customer care and administration was down 3%, to 52,528. The sharpest fall happened in selling and distribution, which had 30,596 employees in the last fiscal year after losing around 13% of the total.
While Vodafone has drawn attention to its TOBi system as an example of automation, new technologies are also starting to affect telecom staff in other areas, including network and IT departments.
In April, Three UK, one of Vodafone's mobile rivals, revealed plans to axe two thirds of jobs in its technology and operations departments following investment in cloud systems and heavier reliance on Microsoft Azure.
The move will claim between 700 and 800 jobs and leave Three with a technology and operations team of between 400 and 500 employees, said Dave Dyson, Three UK's CEO.
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- Three UK to cut two thirds of tech jobs in digital makeover
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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading