With artificial intelligence rapidly enabling greater automation, the skills people have today are not necessarily those that will soon be needed. Forward-looking companies, governments and universities are already beginning to teach people to adapt. But considering the scale of the challenge, are they doing enough?
Installing electrical wiring on an aircraft is a complex task that leaves no room for error. That’s why Airbus has introduced augmented reality as a possible solution to give technicians real-time, hands-free, interactive 3D wiring diagrams – right before their eyes.
Traditionally, technicians had to look at and interpret a two-dimensional drawing. But augmented reality means they can see where the wiring goes on the fuselage. The result? A substantial improvement in quality and cost, both at a time when Airbus is under pressure to fulfil a burgeoning order book.
Theoretically, Airbus’s assembly line technicians’ jobs are in danger as artificial intelligence (AI) enables greater automation in the factories of the future. Yet this example shows how technology can be used to augment people’s jobs, making them more productive, providing they receive sufficient training and their employers start to plan pragmatically for the future.
Shifting skill requirements
It’s no secret that automation and AI will accelerate major shifts in the workforce, requiring extensive retraining and organisational changes. At one end of the scale, demand for technological skills, both basic digital and advanced tech, will rise by 55 per cent by 2030, while demand for social and emotional skills such as leadership and managing others will rise by 24 per cent, according to a McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) discussion paper. ‘Skill shift: Automation and the future of the workforce’.
That said, demand for basic cognitive skills such as data entry, and physical and manual skills are forecast to fall, although physical/manual skills will remain the largest skill category in 2030 in many countries.
“It has become fashionable to talk about the importance of retraining workers for a more automated future,” explains Susan Lund, a Washington DC-based MGI partner. “Our research shows just how urgent and large-scale that task now is. Companies will take the lead on building their own workforce, but all stakeholders – educators, foundations, industry associations, organised labour and of course policy makers – will have a role to play.”
Companies retrain and reskill
While companies in Europe and the US are not expecting to alter the size of their workforces over the next three years, according to the MGI paper, many are focusing on retraining and reskilling. Airbus’s augmented reality shows how wearable tech can be used to foster learning on job.
Companies are embracing the concept of ‘lifelong learning’, acknowledging that employees will need to be continually retrained to meet the needs of an evolving workplace. They are rethinking how their HR departments function, using ‘people analytics’ to understand how much time is spent on what. And, they are training people to be successful in new roles.
SAP and AT&T are two rapidly changing technology and telecom firms tackling this problem. SAP has identified the ‘skills gap’ it faces as it pursues an ‘industry 4.0’ strategy. It has mapped ‘learning journeys’ for thousands of employees, blending in-house training and on-the-job practice. AT&T has also mapped out its skills gap, including coding and data science. But it has developed partnerships with 32 universities and multiple online education platforms. The results? By March 2017, more than half its employees had completed 2.7 million online courses in subjects such as data science, cybersecurity, agile programme management and computer science.
“This is not just a question of being nice to employees,” says Till Leopold, project lead on the Future of Education and Work at the World Economic Forum. “It’s a life or death issue for these companies going forward.”
Governments as catalysts of change
Governments have an important role to play in preparing for the future of work. They are the facilitators of change, bringing together the private sector, educational institutions and labour unions to introduce perpetual learning.
Not all governments have risen to the challenge yet, but some notable examples have. Singapore, for example, has introduced ‘SkillsFuture Initiative’, which provides all Singaporeans aged 25 or over with a credit of about USD 500 to pay for approved work-skills related courses. Similarly, jobs disruption councils in Denmark and Sweden have identified ways to make sure that digitalisation, robots and artificial intelligence will boost wealth and welfare, even as some traditional jobs are scaled back.
Universities start to evolve
Some universities are also playing their part in adapting to the future. Based in Silicon Valley, just 35 miles south of San Francisco, it is no surprise that Stanford University is a frontrunner. Stanford is adapting its approach to the rapid changes in jobs such as computer science and engineering through teaching students how to adapt as future career requirements change, as well as emphasising and providing lifelong learning.
In Switzerland, the boundary between vocational and educational degrees is being broken down. By allowing people with vocational degrees to pursue an MBA, for example, the educational system is being given the flexibility to respond to their needs for learning fresh skills throughout working lives.
Time for collaboration
While companies are already prepping their workforces with new skills, none are working as collaboratively as they must to reskill workers, considering the scale of the challenge. Looking at the aerospace industry specifically, the intense rivalry in the Airbus/Boeing duopoly means that each sees how well they train the workforce as a competitive tool.
Yet there is a need for an ecosystem of learning – where companies, governments, unions and educational institutions join forces. This would allow people to continually retrain throughout their careers, with each of these parties playing their part as they plan, fund and facilitate the major adaptation needed.
“We are in a world where our education systems were aimed towards kids but we need to build a new kind of lifelong learning system for the adult population,” says the World Economic Forum’s Leopold. “To even break out of that people need to work together.”
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