The introduction of computers and automated processes during the last industrial revolution transformed manufacturing beyond recognition and paved the way for significant disruption to the workforce.
Now, on the eve of Industry 4.0, the convergence of technology, connectivity and the Internet of Things (IoT) enable computers to seamlessly communicate with one another and, ultimately, make decisions without human intervention. Will this wipe out the need for a human workforce? Categorically not.
Change of any sort inevitably brings uncertainty and the speed of technological developments can spark concern for the very future of an industry. But, through the years, we have seen time and again that this concern is mostly misplaced and that change, in fact, results in improvements, efficiencies and advancements previously unforeseen. In our own industry, for example, many predicted that the introduction of AWR regulations would signal the end of recruitment companies but the reverse is true; there are now 40,000 recruitment agencies in the UK and over 8,500 new businesses opened last year alone.
Despite massive advances in technology, the requirement for a human workforce will never be eliminated. The need for humans to perform some jobs will certainly diminish – these are most likely to be the lower skilled jobs, where robotics can be used to carry out the tasks in place of a machine or production operator. However, there will always be jobs in any industry that need a human, after all, it is humans that control and instruct the machines. So, in theory, human jobs will just become more interesting, dependent on the level to which we choose to deploy technology within our industries.
So, rather than lamenting the potential for computers to replace humans, we need to focus on ensuring that the next workforce generation is receiving the right education and training to manage the challenges, and leverage the advantages, that Industry 4.0 will bring. Estimates from the World Economic Forum indicate that 65% of children who entered primary school in 2016 will end up working in jobs that don’t yet exist.
At the Westminster Higher Education Forum in March this year, Jisc CEO, Paul Feldman, told delegates that, although many of the transformational technologies underpinning Industry 4.0 are not ready yet, there are still things universities and colleges can do to prepare; such as investing in data analytics, the IoT and virtual reality. Jisc’s response to Industry 4.0 – known as Education 4.0 – represents a shift in the way students learn, led by artificial intelligence (AI).
Think, for example, about the current changes in our manufacturing and engineering industries, where the role of manual machinists is changing to that of a Computer Numerical Control (CNC) programmer. Now ask anyone in the industry and they’ll tell you that there simply aren’t enough CNC programmers to perform the jobs that already exist, let alone those jobs that will exist in the coming years, because young people are not leaving school equipped with the right qualifications or skills to be trained for these engineering jobs.
If education, in particular, vocational education, doesn’t move faster to embrace new technologies, such as AI, our industries will find themselves lagging behind international markets and stuck with an increasingly urgent skills shortage.
Aaron Bowes, Director, Recruit Mint
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