Training programmes and other incentives are vital to enable the workforce to successfully adjust to the impact of automation. We look at some of the initiatives underway in different countries to adapt and profit from the growth in automation, including robot adoption.
The IFR Positioning Paper ‘The Impact of Robots on Productivity, Employment and Jobs’ provides evidence from range of studies by leading economists that automation has led overall to an increase in labour demand and positive impact on wages. History shows us that automation leads to a shift in the type of labour in demand. In most cases, the shift results in changes to existing roles and a requirement to acquire new skills. Less often, existing roles become redundant and workers must apply new and existing skills in new sectors.
Governments and private-sector organisations have recognised that the speed and scale of technological change call for additional investments in providing the right skills to current and future workers to ensure a continuation of the positive impact of automation on employment, job quality and wages. In this blog, we provide an overview of the major types initiatives underway to prepare the workforce for automation. We will continue to report on specific initiatives from individual countries in future blogs.
Countries increase investments in skills-oriented education
A rapidly changing technology landscape and a labour market in which employees either want to, or must, acquire new skills on an on-going basis to maintain relevance call for new approaches to skills acquisition.
The number of students enrolled in higher education institutes has doubled globally since 2000, reflecting demand by employers for higher qualifications and a desire by students to enter higher-income professions. However, there are signs that this trend has contributed to disparity in skills supply and demand. This has left many companies short of adequately skilled staff to profit effectively from automation, and students short of the qualifications that lead to employment security in mid- to high-income jobs. As we discuss in detail in our positioning paper ‘Robots and the Workplace of the Future’, the production and logistics sectors are struggling to hire qualified staff. And while digital skills are deemed a pre-requisite by employers across all sectors, most employers place increasing emphasis on ‘soft’ skills such as communications, teamwork, situation analysis and decision-making.
Governments, education institutes and private-sector organisations have recognised this and are working on initiatives to better match skills and qualifications to market demand, as well as incentives and programmes for life-long learning.
Germany has a long tradition of matching skills training to demand, both through higher education, and through apprentice trainee schemes that do not require a higher education qualification. The ‘Duales Studium’ (parallel study) system enables students to complete a higher education qualification while working for a company. Seventy-five percent of Duales Studium students are employed on full (non-fixed-term) contracts following their studies, versus 50% of students in other higher education programmes. Switzerland uses a similar model. South Korea – where a greater percentage of young people complete higher education than any other OECD country – has introduced a ‘Meister’ vocational training programme aimed at addressing a skills demand gap which, according to the World Economic Forum, led to 42% of Koreans being overqualified for their jobs in 2014. A number of Italian universities offer master’s degrees in applied automation. Curricula are generally developed in close collaboration with private sector companies and research establishments to ensure students are trained in cutting-edge technologies and giving the private-sector companies involved access to highly-skilled workers.
Lifelong learning programmes and incentives
Governments in a number of countries have developed programmes and incentives to ensure that employees can continuously update their skills to match demand. The government of Singapore, for example, offers $370 subsidies to all Singaporeans aged 25 and over to study in hundreds of career-oriented courses. Singapore’s national university also adapted to offer more worker-friendly educational opportunities, including part-time degrees, modular certificate courses, executive education, and free classes for alumni. Denmark, which has a long tradition of continuing education, runs an ‘Arbejdsmarkedsuddannelser’ programme of short courses focused on providing both low-skilled and skilled workers with the skills and qualifications they need. In Sweden, job security councils, jointly managed by the private sector and unions, retrain workers who need to upgrade their skills as a result of automation. Some US states have made community colleges free for residents in order to encourage ongoing skills training.
Some of these programmes and incentives focus specifically on retraining workers whose roles could be replaced by automation. The UK government, for example, has launched a ‘Get Help to Retrain’ scheme aimed at helping adults identify and address skills gaps and job opportunities.,
Public-private partnerships focus on matching skills training to demand
A number of public-private partnerships focus on ensuring that educational curricula are matched to local and regional employer demand. In the US, Markle Foundation has teamed with the states of Colorado and Indiana, educational institutions such as Purdue University, state-wide employers such as Microsoft, LinkedIn and Walmart, and local small-and mid-sized businesses to match curricula to skills demand from employers. Manufacturing USA, created in 2014 to secure U.S. global leadership in advanced manufacturing, focuses on collaboration between its 14 institutes, their industrial partners, and local school systems and academic institutions to promote and develop the advanced skills needed for the future manufacturing . One of these Institute –ARM – focuses specifically on robotics.
A number of Industry 4.0 Competence Centres established in Italy focus on technology and skills transfer to manufacturers. For example, MADE, headed by Politecnico di Milano, collaborates with 39 technology companies and other Italian universities to provide manufacturing companies in Italy with services including training. The competence centres also enable manufacturers to trial and assess how various technologies could be applied in their specific context. Meanwhile, Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute has partnered with technology companies to develop a Future Work Lab aimed at helping companies and employees experience and prepare for future automation scenarios. The Future Work Lab offers standardised and bespoke training courses in the new technologies demonstrated.
Many private-sector organisations have initiated programmes – often in collaboration with local education institutes – to ensure a supply of relevant skills. Amazon recently announced a $700 million investment to retrain about a third of its American workers in digital and automation skills, including robots. IBM has partnered with 200 public high schools in its Pathways in Technology Early College High Schools (P-TECH) programme providing a six-year program that provides over 100,000 primarily low-income students in 18 countries with ‘career-ready’ skills in scientific, technology and engineering disciplines. Curricula are developed in collaboration with industry partners.
Robot manufacturers focus on lowering the skills barrier to robot use
While governments and companies focus on equipping the workforce with skills to use new technologies, makers of those technologies – including robot manufacturers – are working to ensure the technologies are easier to use. Programming interfaces are increasingly intuitive, and many robots can be trained through demonstration. As we describe in our paper Demystifying Collaborative Robots, a new generation of collaborative industrial robots, designed to be integrated into production lines with workers, offer employees in all sizes of company the opportunity to learn and apply basic robot programming and application skills. Most industrial robot manufacturers offer certified training programmes for operators.
Need for life-long training for low-skilled workers
As these examples show, governments and companies are responding to the challenge of supporting the workforce in adapting to rapidly changing skills requirements. Various studies indicate that it is middle-skilled workers who are most likely to have to adapt to new job profiles as a result of automation – with 80% of them moving to higher-skilled jobs as a result. However, the OECD sounds a note of caution that not enough is being done to help low-skilled workers, who account for 20% of the OECD’s working population. Low-skilled adults are three times less likely to undertake training than high-skilled workers. Governments will need to do more to engage low-skilled workers in training, through a range of incentives such as mandatory time off for training, and access to free training courses.
Automation continues to gain pace, as the IFR’s recent statistics demonstrate with a 6% increase in sales of industrial robots in 2018 over 2017. Automation technologies such as robots bring many benefits, both directly to workers - whose jobs are less dangerous and more rewarding as a result - and to all of us in our daily lives as we benefit from better healthcare, improved product ranges and a reduction in environmental impact of the food we eat. Armed with the right skills, an increasing number of today and tomorrow’s workforce can ensure that we reap the benefits of automation.
Picture: © ABB