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IFR Secretariat Blog - Jan 05, 2021

Only a couple of years ago, headlines were dominated by the narrative that automation was coming after jobs in a wide range of industry sectors. Today, there is increasing recognition that automation will change jobs, but eliminate only a small percentage. The challenge is not mass unemployment, but how to ensure today and tomorrow’s workforce is equipped with the skills to work with new technologies.

This challenge was the topic of a recent virtual executive roundtable discussion hosted by the IFR together with Messe München and is also the focus of a new positioning paper by the IFR, ‘Next Generation Skills: Enabling Today’s and Tomorrow’s Workforce to Benefit from Automation’

Skills shortages are already a challenge in sectors such as manufacturing that shed jobs around 10 years ago and have struggled to keep pace with current demand. In the US, for example, Department of Labor figures from January 2020 showed nearly 80% of manufacturers struggling to fill over 400,000 open positions. One third were forced to turn down new business in 2019 due to a skills shortage, according to the National Association of Manufacturers.

As the ‘baby boomer’ generation (born between 1954 and 1964) retires, there will be an acute shortage of ‘classic’ manufacturing skills such as welding, machine operators and assembly workers. Cedefop, the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training, forecasts that 91% of new hires in Europe to 2030 will replace retiring workers, meaning manufacturers will have to replace traditional skills at the same time as introducing new skills required to manage and reap the benefits of automation technology.

Automation changing core manufacturing jobs profiles

What will those new skills be? The IFR surveyed members and reviewed the literature to explore how automation, and specifically robotics, will change the skills requirements of four main manufacturing job profiles – production worker; technician; engineer and production manager. We found that all four job profiles can expect significant interaction with robotic and other automation technologies. IFR members estimate that over 50% of production operators will be working with robots in 10 years’ time. Robots will assist workers in tedious, unergonomic work such as feeding machines, lifting and holding heavy parts and performing repetitive tasks that require high degrees of precision such as applying glue or polishing surfaces. Many operators will learn to program and supervise robots. Technicians will need broad information technology skills to use data generated by machines, and analytic tools, to assess when machines need maintenance. They will also start to take a proactive role in process optimization. Engineers will increasingly manage connected systems rather than discrete machines and will need expertise in electronics and software as well as traditional skills in mechanical engineering. Production managers will oversee a broader range of machines and processes than in the past, requiring broad technology skills in related systems such as enterprise resource planning (ERP). They will also perform complex optimization tasks across the entire production line. In general, manufacturers will place higher value on human skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, and people management. For many manufacturers, this will entail a shift in corporate culture, with flatter organizational hierarchies and more autonomy for agile teams working locally and remotely. Increasing robot adoption will also create new jobs, such as the Smart Factory Manager, Robot Teaming Coordinator and Robot Debugger (see the paper for job descriptions and more examples).

Collaboration between different actors key to successful up-skilling

How will employees acquire these new skills? This was the main focus of the IFR executive roundtable. Panelists agreed that workers must be central to automation strategies, and that effective skills training requires the close collaboration of an eco-system of actors including robot manufacturers, employers in manufacturing and other industry sectors, education institutes, trade unions and government. The group stressed the urgency of coordinated action. As Mike Cicco, President & CEO of FANUC America put it, ‘Unless we prepare the manufacturing industry for the factory worker of the future, we’ll lose skilled labor, which is already reduced due to demographic change’.

The group agreed that different programs are needed for future and existing workers. More needs to be done in primary and secondary education to interest young people in sciences and automation technologies in order to develop the next generation of manufacturing workers and automation specialists in other sectors. Felix Rohn, Policy Officer at European Commission’s Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs & Inclusion, pointed to the example of Poland, which made the study of natural sciences and maths mandatory up to the last two years of secondary school education, resulting in a significant increase in the number of science students in higher education. Jeff Burnstein, President of the US Robotics Industries Association, pointed to the First Robotics program which organizes a variety of technology competitions for school students of different ages to introduce and interest them in new technologies, including robotics.

Ensuring re-training for low-skilled workers challenging

Anna Byhovskaya, Senior Policy Advisor of The Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD (TUAC) pointed to the difficulties in re-skilling low-skilled workers. ‘Low-skilled workers are not use to receiving training and often aren’t given a financial incentive. We need to get employers to work with trade unions to encourage uptake of training, ensure the right financial mechanisms are in place, as well as time off for training. We already see a correlation between collective bargaining coverage and willingness to take up training by employers.’ Felix Rohn commented that the European Union is exploring individual learning accounts which are already in place in France. Jeff Burnstein and Mike Cicco pointed out that technologies such as virtual reality and increasingly intuitive robot programming interfaces are already reducing the time needed by people without a technical background to use robots.

The group agreed that the most important factor in ensuring successful up- and re-skilling is effective collaboration between different actors, with clear responsibilities. Robot manufacturers should be responsible for advising on the skills required to use their equipment, as well as ensuring robots are available in colleges and training centers and that trainers are up to speed with the latest technology developments. Companies must ensure workers are given time for training and collaborate with trade unions to ensure access to and uptake of training programs. Education institutes must work with both robot manufacturers and employers to develop curricula based around the latest technology and adapted to the needs of employees. Government must provide the right incentives for these activities and drive collaboration between partners. Parents also have a role in enabling a cultural shift that recognizes technical apprenticeships as positive career paths for young people.

National and regional best practice serves as foundation

The panel agreed there is already best practice that can be scaled and adopted in other geographies. Felix Rohn pointed to the Dutch government’s ‘Triple Helix’ model of cooperation at regional level between regional government, education and training providers and trade unions. He also mentioned the European Commission’s ‘Pact for Skills’, whose signatories from both public and private sector commit to promoting a culture of lifelong learning for all and building strong skills partnerships, with the Commission providing networking and knowledge hub services. Mike Cicco pointed to the Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship Programs (IRAP) in the US which provide individuals with opportunities to obtain workplace-relevant knowledge and progressively advancing skills. IRAPs include a paid-work component and an educational component and result in an industry-recognized credential. An IRAP is developed or delivered by entities such as trade and industry groups, corporations, non-profit organizations, educational institutions, unions, and joint labor-management organizations. Jeff Burnstein commented that ‘we have lots of good initiatives in the US, but the challenge is that they are not connected, or scaled’.

As we discuss in our ‘Next Generation Skills’ paper, manufacturing is the backbone of many economies and has an important role in generating jobs in related service industries. Even countries that have shrunk their manufacturing sectors in favor of service sectors need a strong core of expertise in manufacturing to drive growth. As Mike Cicco put it, ‘If you want a manufacturing sector in your country, you have to prepare for it, otherwise it will leave and may never come back.’

Automation is profoundly altering the face of manufacturing, creating promising new opportunities for employees at all skills levels. It’s an exciting future, for both new and existing workers, but a future whose potential will not be realized unless urgent action is taken to address an existing and future skills gap. This is the ‘challenge of the 2020s’ and one that requires close collaboration at scale to address.

Have you missed our executive roundtable? Then you can watch the recording at https://www.automatica-munich.com/en/newsroom/webinars/automatica-talk-nr-4/ or see the summary at the IFR YouTube Channel.

Picture © Universal Robots

About the author

Dr. Susanne Bieller

IFR General Secretary

Contact IFR

Dr. Susanne Bieller

IFR General Secretary

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E-Mail: secretariat(at)ifr.org

Dr. Christopher Müller

Director IFR Statistical Department

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Silke Lampe

Assistant IFR Secretariat

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Nina Kutzbach

Assistant IFR Statistical Department

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E-Mail: statistics(at)ifr.org