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The skills needed for the Fourth Industrial Revolution…

If the Fourth Industrial Revolution is the next big thing for the manufacturing sector, isn’t it about time we get skills ready to capitalise upon the opportunity?  


I’ve written about skills and skills gaps before. I think this stuff is really important, and that’s not just because it is my job, but because I firmly believe it is critical to economic growth.  So, with the risk of sounding like a stuck record, I’m going to talk more about the need for investment in training and skills development.   


This time, I’m going to focus on what we’re seeing in the manufacturing sector.  


Much has been written about how the new technologies of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), such as artificial intelligence (AI), cloud computing and robotics, have the potential to change the way we live, learn and do business.  In some of manufacturing’s emerging markets the potential for new technology is most significant.  Some countries, businesses and people are well placed to embrace this change, and will take advantage of the opportunities afforded by 4IR.  What worries me is that many are not. The founder of the World Economic Forum, Karl Schwab, talks about the risk of increasing inequalities and fragmentation.  


We live in a world which is still feeling the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Personally, professionally and economically we’re still navigating our way around new realities. Across the manufacturing sector, COVID-19 forced many companies to adopt digital technologies and automation at a faster rate than perhaps they’d previously planned (or even imagined).   


This rapid adoption of new technologies has to have an effect on the manufacturing workforce.  In order to maximise the opportunity associated with the digital transformation and automation of production and supply chains, roles, skills and thinking have to adapt. But there’s already a mismatch between the available workers and the skills necessary to fill open jobs across the manufacturing sector.   


Why is this? What’s influencing demand?  How can skills policy, delivery and qualifications to be better aligned with economic drivers?   


Unlike the First Industrial Revolution, it seems that manufacturing doesn’t have the same appeal as it did in the past. Reports from some countries suggest younger workers view manufacturing as a dying industry that is low paid, and offers little career progression – and they look elsewhere for work.   


We’ve all heard talk about the effects of automation on workers, with widespread predictions of large-scale job losses. I believe automation is going to have a significant impact on the future job market but, rather than simple displacement, new jobs will be created as a result of new technologies and the boost to the economy these technologies will bring.  


Rapid innovation, technological transformation, and the flood of digital tools into the workplace mean the jobs of tomorrow are still emerging – or even not yet known. For many occupations, digital will complement human activity, and automation could relieve workers of mundane, repetitive, or dangerous tasks. Clearly workers will need to learn how to operate and coexist with new digital technologies.  


And, not all countries are starting from the same point.  Despite the significant expansion of ICT access, ICT availability and use is far from universal. The COVID-19 crisis accelerated digitalisation in advanced economies and made catching up more difficult for countries or regions that were lagging before the crisis.  


The economic potential of the sector around the world is being constrained by a lack of skilled workers.  How does the sector move forward, how does it reverse the slide?  How do nations lagging behind catch up?  How do people and businesses across the sector ensure they’re equipped with the skills and knowledge they need for the factories of the future? 


Skilling the factories of the future 

As companies replace legacy processes and systems with those that are more suited to handle newer technologies, they will need to consider the skills requirements of the new look workforce.  

Increasingly, employers are looking for computer skills such as those that enable production workers to program a CNC (computer numeric control) machine, or interact with CAD/CAM (computer-aided design/computer-aided manufacturing) and other engineering or manufacturing software.  

Digitalisation and computer aided design (CAD) have extended the use of advanced technologies in the sector. Adoption of 3D modelling, generative design, additive manufacturing and virtual and augmented reality has increased the need for digital skills and the advent of new roles.  


Training will be needed to help workers acquire both the digital and softer skills which will be demanded in the future and to support for those who lose out from the impact of automation. Workers need access to programs that provide in-demand skills for new manufacturing roles and careers. In my experience, the most effective strategies incorporate work-based learning models; programs developed through partnerships between employers and educational institutions that pair classroom learning with on-the-job learning. 


Some thoughts on actions we can take, together:  


  1. Establish a new mandate for education and training. Education systems need to be upgraded to provide digital skills and critical thinking skills, alongside job-specific skills, through schools and universities.  With industry leading the way in deployment of new technologies, collaboration is critical.  How can you influence what’s needed now, and in the future?  


  1. Consider technology and talent hand-in-hand. Talent needs should be considered as part of the digital transformation journey. Give existing workers access to training programmes, allowing them to develop the skills they need to ensure they’re not obsolete in increasingly automated and digitised factories. Look at the opportunities associated with work-based learning; explore programs developed through partnerships between employers and educational institutions that pair classroom learning with on-the-job learning. 


  1. Reframe career opportunities.  Factories of the future, aren’t like those of the past.  Young people need to be excited about the opportunities associated with engineering and manufacturing earlier in their education journey.  How can they be offered opportunities to experience technologies such as generative design, 3D printing and real-time 3D?  Digital skills should become a core competency for students in secondary education, as part of the STEM agenda.  


Manufacturing is changing radically – new technologies, emerging manufacturing superpowers and global supply chains. New skills are needed but many of these skills are in short supply, and the gap isn’t expected to narrow any time soon.  


The actions taken by manufacturers during the global pandemic has shown that companies can start on their 4IR journey in a small way and then scale quickly. Clearly there are lessons which can be learnt.  Manufacturers can adapt their talent strategies, and upskill existing employees to fulfil the roles the factories of the future require.  Manufacturers need to invest in skills – and in some markets, the underlying enabling technologies. 


Stats tell us that making an investment in developing skills can reap rewards – at a nation, business or individual level.  Better skills lead to better jobs – and the right skills mean opportunities to flourish in the new look manufacturing landscape.  


Don’t get left behind.  



Tomas Karlsson is the head of channel services at KnowledgePoint. This means he oversees the management of outsourced extended enterprise learning programmes, recruiting and supporting global network of training providers on behalf of clients.  These programmes include developing resources to support sector engagement by training network partners. The latest such resource is a manufacturing sector insight report: “Making in a digital world: re-engineering skills” produced as part of KP’s work with Autodesk.   

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