The robotics and automation industry continues to accelerate, and has undertaken a number of changes over the past 12 months due to COVID-19 acting as a catalyst for business digital transformation. According to new research by PWC, it is estimated that by the mid-2030s, up to 30% of all jobs could be automatable. As a result of these transitions, the make-up of workforces and career routes into this industry will also evolve in the coming years.
The jobs of tomorrow require skilled and digitally-enabled employees, as they are the key to business success and international economic development. However, the latest IRF report on World Robotics highlighted how far behind the UK is in terms of automation compared to its international rivals, which is compounded by a skills shortage in the qualifications needed to drive automation. Dr Paul Rivers, CEO, Guidance Automation, explains why this gap exists and emphasises the need for further collaboration between government and higher education establishments to offer appropriate courses and resources for students – and in turn, businesses – to prepare for the future automated world.
The Value of Automation and Robotics
Automation has been advancing at a steady pace for several years, with innovative new concepts and use cases regularly being developed and rolled out. The last 12 months has seen a seismic attitudinal shift in many ways, and it is now clear that automation is essential for businesses to thrive, particularly in socially-distanced settings.
A 2020 global survey of business leaders from a range of industries by McKinsey & Co. found that 66% were piloting solutions to automate at least one business process, up from 57% two years earlier. With a clear shift towards more digitally enabled roles and a growing need for more automation and/or robotics across all industries, this requires more skilled people within these environments. However, the key to success is to train workforces, and if this can be done from apprentice-grades, students will be able to rapidly enter the advancing world of automation.
There is no better time than now to get involved and begin a career in an in-demand industry, but there remains a lack of education and awareness about where students can start this process. This needs to change and become more accessible in order to prepare workforces – and businesses – for a digital future.
The Challenges in Education and Training for Industry 4.0
Robotic automation is changing the job market, and it is estimated that companies will need to add another 700,000 skilled employees, yielding a total of 3.4 million workers. However, due to a variety of factors, the manufacturing industry, in particular, is projected to fall two million workers short of its needs. This growing shortfall is because of an education system that produces too few graduates grounded in STEM disciplines, the manufacturing industry’s reputation that it fails to offer progressive workplaces and an assumption of unfavourable wages.
There remain numerous unmet promises from the government around up-skilling in technology, including confusion around funding and a lack of support available for students. Despite all the shouting that the government is doing about the UK paving the way in the technology industry, such as the Building a Britain Fit for the Future initiative, it seems as if there is a lack of communication between government, business and education establishments.
With UK leaders appearing to prioritise areas such as robotics and automation, the expectations would be that this would ultimately filter through to schools, colleges and universities, but this is not the case. Despite promises for 2,500 places on AI and data conversion courses and 200 places on new AI Masters programmes to be funded by industry, students remain uninformed on how and where to start. Young apprentices or students who are looking to potentially move into this field are unaware of what modules they specifically need for their future, and those they might not, as well as the skills and equipment required.
Additionally, educational institutions are suffering as they can’t access the skilled staff they require to lead the necessary courses – or pay them what they are worth – which has a knock-on effect regarding the quality of teaching and learning. Overall, there remains a lack of information about the available education pathways, as well as how students should start their STEM journey, in the public eye. Complete pathways, including apprenticeships, educational routes and end-outcomes must be available in order to secure the future growth, prosperity and improve productivity across the UK-tech industry.
Government Pathways – Too Little, Too Late?
As the number of UK redundancies reachs a new record, and the unemployment rate increasing by 4.9% as a result of the pandemic, the UK’s prime minister revealed a ‘Lifetime Skills Guarantee’ campaign, where adults without an A level or equivalent qualification will be offered a free, fully-funded FE course to provide them with lifelong technical skills. With the growing number of digitised jobs, it’s critical that such skills programmes must emphasise the need to gain digital and data skills that are essential to the modern workplace.
Additionally, Kickstarter Programmes were also launched last year, which target young people who are at risk of unemployment, and aims to help them get back into the job market by providing government funding for employers to create six-month job placements. However, to take part, organisations that are interested need to take on 30 people at a time – a quota which for many small and medium-sized businesses (SMB) is just not realistic. With a lot of small businesses leading the way in innovation and being an ideal learning environment for new talent, they must not be forgotten about, there needs to be support available for SMBs, as well as larger corporate organisations.
It is encouraging that these incentives are in place, but is it too little too late? This streamline of resources and training needs to continue and grow in order to ensure the right people are trained and have access to the right opportunities so that it remains an attractive pathway.
As an alternative route, some employers understand the importance of growing a digitally enabled workforce, and rather than relying on the government’s educational routes, they are taking the initiative and moving their training in-house. These training approaches provide workers with alternative pathways to the traditional high-school-to-college-to-job route, which in turn, helps businesses to guarantee that they are producing what they need by the end of the time period. This process effectively cuts out both the government and the educational facilities to support this career pathway, especially when UK-leaders are failing to meet their promises.
With businesses stepping up and taking matters into their own hands, it provides more available routes into the industry, which can only be seen as a positive. Perhaps if more businesses were to follow this example, it could go a long way in strengthening the UK’s position as a leader in innovative technology.
With the UK lagging behind globally in terms of skills, productivity and innovation, tackling this issue must be a priority for both industry and government. The latest government initiatives and roadmap to attract global talent and better the UK’s reputation in science and technology is a great start, but the only way to continue this progress is more investment and emphasis on automation, robotics and technology as a career path.
The government all but destroyed the engineering industry, particularly manufacturing, many years ago. Since then, the sector has been trying to reinvent itself and grow, with the help of innovative technology and automation advances, despite an evident skills gap. While the automation and robotic industry remains an attractive and lucrative career path, more needs to be done to direct students in the right way to pursue a job role within STEM and to support businesses that are striving to find the skills they need.