The challenges faced by European skilled workers as a result of digital transformation
Erasmus+ is a European funding program aimed at supporting cross-border initiatives with a bearing on vocational training. One such initiative is called A.U.T.O. 4.0 – Understanding and Achieving Automotive Training Outcomes 4.0. As a partner on the project, Professor Dr. Dr. h.c. Georg Spöttl, entrepreneur at the InnoVET Steinbeis Transfer Center, has been examining the challenges faced by skilled workers in automotive production as a result of the increasing introduction of Industry 4.0 technology.
The main emphasis of the A.U.T.O. 4.0 project lies in an important question: What impact does implementing Industry 4.0 (connected manufacturing) – and with this, networked production processes – have on the competences and vocational profiles of skilled workers? The answer to this question interests a number of project partners in Italy, Germany, Spain, and the UK.
Numerous studies have already ascertained that Industry 4.0 is extremely likely to result in more automated processes and that, for example, this could threaten nearly half of all jobs in the United States. Of course such predictions have to be treated with caution, because a large number of factors are aggregated for making such assessments, particularly when it comes to work practices and occupations. Studies focusing more on understanding requirements indicate that there is one key factor that is extremely important when it comes to the approaches used to organize work processes and jobs at European companies. This raises important questions regarding interactions between people and connected factories, as well as what types of digital technologies are used. In summary, there are three scenarios in this respect:
- The tool scenario: The expert systems that are developed are more like tools for skilled workers. Designing different types of technology provides skilled workers with a number of ways to carry out key tasks on the shop floor.
- The automation scenario: As smart, self-controlled technology is increasingly introduced to machines, production, and logistics, it limits the sphere of influence of skilled workers resulting in a “devaluation” of their qualifications.
- The hybrid scenario: Developing new ways of interacting and collaborating with technology when managing and controlling systems leads to new requirements for skilled workers, because humans and machines need to work together. The type and quality of requirements are then ultimately dictated by the nature of work planning.
Which of these three scenarios will become a reality will depend on approaches to work planning and the impact these have on how certain types of technology are used. The existing qualification levels of skilled workers have a significant single influence on such processes.
Continual connectedness – a social phenomenon
For many companies, it’s not clear which direction developments will take them in when it comes to digitech. To make things worse, as more and more factories become connected as a result of the digital solutions that are required for Industry 4.0, they face a number of imponderables when it comes to actual work processes. This does not prevent them from forging ahead with implementation, however, as confirmed by studies on the diffusion of Industrial 4.0 technology. But it is not so much technological transformation that creates uncertainty, but the rate at which digitech is introduced to processes and the pace of connectivity within subsystems, resulting in highly complex units. Everyone needs help in coping with the increasing levels of technological complexity in society and at work. One particular challenge for the vocational training system is an anticipated intensification in connected systems. This phenomenon is often now referred to as hyperconnectivity. “Hyperconnectivity has become a defining feature of modern society and thus a systemic point of reference for stakeholders in interacting with one another in the education and employment system of the future,” explains Steinbeis Entrepreneur Georg Spöttl.
Case study highlights the challenges of digital transformation
To make meaningful statements about the changing requirements faced by skilled workers, it makes sense to examine changes in the nature of skilled work and the skills employees are expected to offer below academic qualification levels (Level 6, European Qualifications Framework). As a starting point, it is assumed that digital solutions will change tasks and work processes, and thus the vocational reference framework will also change.
In the first example (Case A), it becomes clear that companies with an international focus faced a variety of challenges in 2019 due to the increasing introduction of Industry 4.0 practices. Diagram 1 provides a summary of findings at an automotive supplier employing 1,500 people, 60% of whom were trained as skilled workers. As the overview shows, it is no longer just technological emphasis that is important. There are also shifts in the type of work carried out and social implications.
One prerequisite in the case of the automotive supplier was that skilled workers have technical training in order to understand mechanical and electronic systems, also so they are capable of analyzing defects. Skilled workers must be able to provide key information on the nature of faults to the people who are responsible for actually repairing and eradicating them. With straightforward faults, skilled workers must be in a position to carry out repairs themselves. But to do that, it is necessary to send them to the “front line” for around 12 months during their basic training.
The head of production at the company examined for the case study defines skilled workers as people with a certain degree of commitment, who learn continuously, who have a particular interest in what makes machines tick, and – ultimately – who can describe in detail the processes followed by machines. He estimates that a good 70 percent of staff in his department would count as skilled workers if there were no longer any of the old, manually operated lines.
Using the Industry 4.0 Skills Radar for orientation purposes
Change is sweeping through the automotive supplier market on many fronts, from the introduction of digital media, to software-driven diagnostic equipment and interdepartmental collaboration. This rate of change applies similarly to social factors, affecting not only interpersonal and communication skills, but also people’s willingness to learn new things, commitment levels, people’s eye for detail, and being prepared for management roles.
The study conducted by the A.U.T.O. 4.0 project partners identified 19 qualification profiles for categories of skilled workers, all beneficial in coping with the changes brought about by the introduction of Industry 4.0 technology. Their assessment of the skills required for each profile showed that such skills can be placed on three levels:
- Broad-reaching skills as a new basis of vocational training
- Context-specific skills
- “Abstract” skills
Each skill level dovetails closely with multiple individual skills needed for dealing with tasks. These can be captured on an Industry 4.0 Competence Radar, providing a powerful point of reference for the breadth of requirements, as well as the way in which required skills relate to situations through context-specific expertise. What this also underscores is that abstract skills cannot be considered beyond the context of specific requirements. Looked at from an overarching perspective, the competence radar provides a template for defining the profile of key vocations in European manufacturing.