4 ways automation will transform skills needed in the workplace

OTTO Motors

Every major technological breakthrough in human history has pushed people to embrace new skills. Fears that new technology will make people obsolete and force them out of work are also nothing new; people were not made redundant then, just as they will not be now with the emergence of Industry 4.0 technologies like automation. 

Here are four skills that will be more widely needed in manufacturing as a result of AI, robotics and software automation:

1. Technological skills

According to McKinsey Insights, of all relevant skill sets, automation will have the biggest impact on demand for technological skills. This is hardly surprising since any type of technology that is used by companies will need employees who can use, maintain, fix, and configure it.

To quantify the change resulting from increased automation, McKinsey modelled the total hours spent using technological skills across the global workforce in 2016 and made a forecast for what the requirements will be in 2030, predicting a 55% increase. This growth is considerably higher than the corresponding fall in demand for physical and manual skills that McKinsey expects to decrease by 14%.

While technological skills are one of the highest demands from employers, there is currently a shortage of workers with these skill sets. A company's ability to retain and hire for superior talent will be critical to their future success. The 2019 MHI Industry Report recommends companies to partner with regional STEM, career and technical post-secondary programs to attract more young professionals with technical skill sets and experience. The association also recommends retraining companies' existing workforce by assigning them more fulfilling work that is directly related to technology.

Organizations in the early stages of digital maturity face a chicken-and-egg problem where they have a tremendous need for digital talent, yet their hesitancy to embrace a digital culture makes them less attractive to such talent.

MIT Sloan and Deloitte

2. Critical thinking

Despite the considerable growth and evolution in factory automation since the middle of the 20th century, overall employment in the U.S. manufacturing sector has barely changed in 70 years. Rather than people being replaced by automation, employment has instead shifted from “rote and repetitive work” to roles that require more critical thinking and other higher order cognitive skills — problem solving, analysis, and creative innovation. Moreover, as this shift has occurred, employee productivity is now 4x greater than it was in the 1940s. This can be attributed to employees’ desire for jobs requiring higher-value cognitive skills, as opposed to jobs plagued by repetitive tasks.

The current generation wants the opportunity to be creative and solve challenging problems. They are not infatuated with the mundane.

Randy Bradley

Assistant Professor of Supply Chain Management, University of Tennessee

A study from the World Economic Forum also suggests a similar shift is taking place with digital automation, identifying 26 “industrial lighthouses,” or exemplar manufacturers that are leading the way with automation. The WEF found that the common thread uniting them all in their achievements was a willingness to retrain their workforce, with a particular focus on higher order cognitive skills that promote leadership.

McKinsey agrees that digital automation will see a further increase in demand for higher cognitive skills in the workplace, predicting an 8% rise in hours spent using such skills from 2016 to 2030.

Chart 1: By 2030, the biggest change in needed skills will come in technological skills, social and emotional skills, and higher cognitive skills.

Chart 1: By 2030, the biggest change in needed skills will come in technological skills, social and emotional skills, and higher cognitive skills.

3. People skills

It may seem surprising that McKinsey expects automation to trigger more significant growth in demand for social and emotional skills than for higher cognitive skills - a 24% increase compared to 8%, respectively. This is because machines are becoming capable of performing more and more tasks autonomously, meaning that anything machines can’t do will gain value to employers, including ‘people skills’.

Although we now live in a world where we can ask Smart Assistants questions and have IM conversations with chatbots, these examples of artificial ‘communication’ are only rule-based programmes relying on the availability of relevant data sets. We are a long way from seeing AI that is capable of empathising, interpreting and using humour appropriately, reading body language, adapting responses to different audiences, being persuasive and other skills that define human communication. So while machines might be able to perform many tasks more efficiently and accurately than people, when it comes to relationships, the value of the skills only attributed to humans — people skills — will become more important than ever before.

4. Flexibility in skills and interests

According to PWC, what it describes as ‘soft skills’ — which we can take to mean a combination of the cognitive and social skills listed above — will also become increasingly important “in making people adaptable” as the impact of automation ramps up. Along with these skills becoming more valued in their own right, it is also likely that increased automation will loosen the definition of job roles, requiring people to perform a wider range of tasks involving broader skill sets.

Take the example of the truck driver, which is often used to illustrate the existential threat to job roles that automation poses. The conventional wisdom is that driverless trucks will one day make truck drivers obsolete. However, another way of looking at it is that, once freed from spending the majority of their time behind the wheel, truck drivers will be able to diversify their role and provide value to their employers by performing a far wider range of tasks — fleet management, systems maintenance, customer service, logistics planning and more.

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