Reskilling, Upskilling, and Workplace Learning for Industry 4.0
Technological innovation and labor displacement have a long and storied history. Yet, the Industrial Revolution actually led to an overall higher standard of living and created more jobs than it automated away.
Even if Industry 4.0 does deliver on its promise of greater societal welfare and creating more interesting, higher paying jobs, nobody doubts that the transition will be challenging.
And, on a macroscopic scale, we’ll face even more serious challenges. Deloitte concludes, “Greater income inequality, increased unemployment, growing dependence on government, and more mass migrations are a few of the more pressing problems that failing to train the next generation of workers for the digitally driven economy will bring.”
So, given the high stakes of failing to adequately prepare for the coming industrial age, now is the time to act. In this article, we’re going to explore what tomorrow’s workforce may look like, as well as how to prepare it with training and education.
The Industry 4.0 Workforce
The first place to start looking at how employment will change in the Fourth Industrial Revolution is by figuring out what’s going to be cut first. Andrew Ng, a leading AI researcher, gives us a baseline in the Harvard Business Review: “If a typical person can do a mental task with less than one second of thought, we can probably automate it using AI either now or in the near future.”
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However, tech innovations and the economic response to COVID-19 are together creating new opportunities as we pivot towards this future. Zoe Leduc writes for Assembly Magazine, “As manufacturers connect to the IIoT [Industrial Internet of Things], new positions like IIoT engagement manager, developer, and application architect are opening up.” On top of that, we have positions like systems engineers that work on projects like building cloud-based infrastructure for remote workforces.
In the near term, we can expect these high-tech positions to continue growing. We’re already seeing jobs like software developer and information security analyst among the most in demand jobs, alongside jobs like registered nurse or home health aide, positions that we either cannot or would not want to automate because they require a human touch.
This points to a key takeaway: besides the obvious tech-centric jobs that we’ll need to support Industry 4.0’s smart machinery, we’re going to see an uptick in infrastructure roles that require skills like critical thinking and emotional intelligence.
Lastly, we need to touch on what to expect down the road. “Anywhere between 40 to 60 percent of the jobs 10 years from now are going to be jobs that haven’t even been envisioned yet,” said Dr. Scott Latham in a CGS interview. For example, he points towards the AI ethicist, “a person who works and looks at how AI should behave in an ethical manner to prevent bias, to ensure privacy, to make sure that it’s secure.” And that’s just the beginning—we truly have no idea what new jobs will open up in the coming decades.
This brings us to our central problem: how do we prepare people for jobs if we don’t even know what those jobs are? In a rapidly changing career landscape, how do we make sure that people have the relevant expertise that they need to make progress?
Training and Upskilling
Before we dive in, however, we need to talk about human intelligence. People can learn, and that is the factor that will enable us to transform our workforce. Humans show incredible resilience and adaptability, and there’s no reason to think that’s going to change anytime soon.
To advance toward Industry 4.0, companies are going to need to take a two-pronged approach to workforce support. First, they must retain their current employees by providing retraining and upskilling opportunities. In fact, this boils down to a tech problem because this growth mechanism will be facilitated by a growing class of smart training devices.
John Klaess at Tulip explains, “Industry 4.0 training devices revolutionize training precisely because they excel where older methods fell short. They let employees self-guide their way through new processes, protecting precious resources; they collect data on trainee progress in real time, allowing for continuous improvement; and they offer media-rich instructions customizable for every new task.” Some of these devices include Augmented Reality (AR) glasses that provide an immersive training environment, IIoT devices that let workers double-check their work as they learn, and Enterprise eLearning Solutions.
The other side of the coin is recruiting both displaced workers and those who are just entering the workforce. More manufacturers, including industry leaders like Siemens and General Electric, are reviving apprenticeship programs to onboard new employees. Especially as we continue to integrate novel technologies, we won’t be able to find workers who have prior experience running or supporting these systems. To fill the gap, companies need to devise programs to get new employees up to speed while continuously offering opportunities to upskill into more sophisticated work.
“Technology won’t displace work, it will reinvent it,” says Jason Tyszko, Vice President at the Center for Education and Workforce, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. “Technology increases the skillset, which could result in in higher paying, more stable jobs.”
Second, there’s no such thing as disruption-proofing. Hopefully you’re not getting too tired of disruption because it looks like tech disruption will only continue to accelerate. Organizations need to adapt by implementing ongoing, continuous training programs that keep their people up-to-date with the latest skills.
While on the job training will prove crucial for the Industry 4.0 workforce, we also need to shift the way we approach education. At the forefront of the issue, people need an education that lets them stay nimble and get the most out of their organizations’ training initiatives. As Dr. Latham puts it, “For people in the workforce and the future of work, flexibility is critical.”
This flies in the face of many recent trends in education that promote specialization over generalization. Following the belief that these are the skills that employers are looking for, we’ve seen an increased focus on STEM education. And, while it’s true that we need people who understand tech to operate and support the IIoT, that’s not the end of the story.
In The Fuzzy and the Techie, venture capitalist Scott Hartley argues against this STEM-only mindset. “The main problem is that it encourages students to approach their education vocationally—to think just in terms of the jobs they’re preparing for,” summarizes JM Olejarz for HBR. Remembering that the job market is rapidly evolving and that many of the coming decade’s jobs are currently inconceivable, it’s not hard to see that such a narrow focus is no longer feasible.
Without a doubt, institutions like MIT will continue to expand their offerings to incorporate the latest tech demands, such as this course in implementing Industry 4.0. These provide a necessary component in the education ecosystem—especially if industry leaders can take them to quickly get up to speed—but they’re not an effective long-term solution.
Instead, students need to learn how to learn. Education must emphasize critical thinking, active listening, and effective communication. This foundation enables people to succeed in the training methods that we listed above and in the job roles that are difficult or undesirable to automate, those that require creativity, collaboration, empathy, authenticity, and ingenuity.
This is the case for a liberal arts education in the 21st century. These schools enrich students by promoting skills that cannot be automated. “Art and beauty is very hard to replicate with AI,” concludes Kai-Fu Lee, a former executive at both Google and Microsoft. “Given AI is more objective, analytical, data driven, maybe it’s time for some of us to switch to the humanities, liberal arts, and beauty
Educational priorities will shift as we venture deeper into Industry 4.0. Ironically, the best way to move forward might just be to look back at that which is timeless.
The Bottom Line
It’s easy to get lost in the minutiae of innovative technology and lose sight of the big picture. Let’s ask ourselves, “What’s the point of the Fourth Industrial Revolution? Why should we care?”
If you’re a factory owner or business executive, the answer is obvious: greater productivity, improved efficiency, lower costs, and more money. For most of us, however, we need to keep in mind that high-tech solutions like AI ultimately exist to serve our needs and make our lives better.
Toiling on a production line may have been a reasonable way to make a living for the past couple centuries, by allocating these rote jobs to machines, we’ll create opportunities for people to engage in meaningful, creative, and interesting work.
In this way, Industry 4.0 will help us to be more human. Let’s remember that as we educate, train, and upskill tomorrow’s workforce.
John Himes is a tech writer who provides insights into the ways innovative technologies are coming together to revolutionize business, affect our daily lives, and alter our societies. In his free time, he enjoys DIY tech projects like Raspberry Pi.