What’s the future of work in the digital economy? Global experts share insights on skills needs for Industry 4.0

What’s the future of work in the digital economy? Global experts share insights on skills needs for Industry 4.0

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen a rapid acceleration of the digitalisation of industry like never before.

Some of today’s biggest innovators and leaders in Australia and Germany – two countries with a collaboration agreement on Industry 4.0 – map the way ahead when it comes to the skills needs of the workforce of the future.

The experts shared their views at the recent global webinar on the Future of Work in the Digital Economy – Developing Skills for Industry 4.0, which was opened by the Australian Ambassador to Germany HE Lynette Wood and hosted by RMIT Europe.

View the global webinar recording

A digital workforce is more important now than ever

“Digitalisation has become more important than ever before. We need a level of flexibility and speed that hasn’t been required to date,” said Jeff Connolly, Chairman and CEO, Siemens Australia New Zealand.

“New business models in Industry 4.0 have emerged at an accelerated rate – and along with that, the need for a skills transition has become much more accentuated,” he said.

“If we look at the impact of the current situation on travel, and bringing this into an industrial setting, it means we need to be able to maintain assets from afar.

“It’s a need more critical than ever, as we’re even seeing borders closed within countries.”

Connolly, who established the Australian Government’s Prime Minister's Industry 4.0 Taskforce, said this need underlines the value of a digital twin – a virtual replica of an asset.

“And these assets, and the systems behind them, need to be reliably secure to ensure that things can keep working,” he said.

“The capabilities and skills required in an Industry 4.0 world are just as relevant to process industries, infrastructure and services – not just factories.  

“A digitally skilled workforce was foreseen in the Industry 4.0 roadmap – but the pandemic has accelerated the urgency to establish these skills at scale.”

Collaboration is key to balancing job creation and job loss

“The COVID-19 disruption has shown us that Industry 4.0 is not only about technology – it's more about people and society,” said Professor Aleksandar Subic, Deputy Vice-Chancellor College of Science, Engineering and Health & Vice President Digital Innovation, RMIT University.

“We’re seeing automation remove repetitive and potentially unsafe or hazardous work ­– freeing up humans to engage in more creative and value-added tasks,” he said.

Subic, who is currently leading the Australian Industry Group (AiG) committee for the future of work, education and training, said that these new jobs are expected in areas such as systems design (cyber-physical, IIoT), modelling and programming, intelligent data analytics and machine learning to enable higher levels of autonomy, industrial automation and robotics, as well as security.

“It’s important to note that the number of new jobs created are projected to outnumber any decline in jobs, such as those involving manual work, repetitive and procedural routines, conventional administrative tasks,” he said.

“But maintaining a positive balance between new jobs created and those lost – and avoiding major disruptions and societal pain – is dependent on active collaboration between policymakers, educational institutions, employers and unions.

“We need to partner in ways that we haven't done in the past. It's about co-design, co-investment and co-delivery of transformational programs for the changing industrial environment and economy.

“It’s not only about creating the workforce of the future – it’s also about reskilling and upskilling the existing workforce at pace and scale, because we have an obligation and responsibility both for now and the future," Subic said. 

Germany’s model for the future workforce

‘Will I be able to cope with the transformation?’ is the concern facing workers in impacted sectors in Germany, according to Martin Kamp, Head of Berlin Office, IG Metall – the German metalworkers' union and Europe's largest industrial union.

The research institute of the German government’s labour agency predicts that up to 2030, the digital revolution will see around 1.3 to 1.5 million new jobs created, with these same figures when it comes to job losses, according to Kamp.

“Germany has several models in place to prepare the workforce of the future, such as its dual vocational training model that sees people working in industry for three days a week and the other two days at a professional school,” he said.

“It's practically oriented and has been incredibly effective in validating the job profiles needed as well as those no longer up-to-date, to enable an industry informed curriculum.

“Another model operating in Germany is the set-up of work councils elected by the workforce.

“These are designed to foster co-determination of what’s needed when it comes to upskilling and reskilling – and there are government funded incentives for employers and employees to work together during any transformation.”

Kamp, who is head of the German Plattform Industrie 4.0’s working group on work, education and training, said there’s a huge need to rescale and to upscale.

“It can be a complicated process – and one that’s only successful if it’s done in collaboration with all involved, from workers and unions through to employers and government,” he said.

29 June 2020


Future of work in the Digital Economy Experts in Australia and Germany shared their views at the recent global webinar on the Future of Work in the Digital Economy – Developing Skills for Industry 4.0.

The opportunity for Australia’s manufacturing sector

Andrew Dettmer, National President, Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Unions said that the manufacturing sector’s transformation to digital production will benefit from all of a worker’s existing skills – and then some.

“I would argue, for example, that the skills inherent in hand and power tools are just as relevant to the digital workplace,” he said.

“One of the attractions of the digital environment is the possibility of a return to artisanal production, where workers or teams of workers are responsible for the carrying out of all the functions needed to form a complete component or item, such as a car.”

Dettmer, who is also a board member of TAFE Queensland, said that although many Australian workplaces are yet to completely adopt Industry 4.0 principles, it’s critical that any conversations on what will be implemented are a cooperative process.

“We’re not quite there yet in terms of this collaboration – and we can learn a lot from the German model,” he said. 

“In the digital environment of the future, we’ll see engineers, programmers, designers, tradespeople and production workers all involved in the making of the Industry 4.0 workplace.

“And for that to take place, unions, employers and governments have to create and develop a new way of working together so that the thoughts and ideas of all engaged can be brought to bear,” Dettmer said.

Engineers play a critical role in industrial transformation

“The expert voice of engineers in the current situation is something we've seen in demand globally,” said Dr Bronwyn Evans, Chief Executive Officer, Engineers Australia.

“And rightfully so, when it’s conversations about our economy as it stands now and what it will look like in the future,” she said.

“We’re now seeing government stimulus measures focus on infrastructure as part of plans to boost economic recovery – infrastructure being another sector reshaping through digital transformation.”

Evans, who is chair of the Building 4.0 Cooperative Research Centre in Australia, said what’s critical in ensuring the right skills are developed for any sectoral transformation is the embedding of lifelong learning in professions.

“Digital skills and a data skills set aren’t necessarily things that people come to straight away,” she said.

“Some of the ways we’ve been tackling this is through accessible learning offerings, such as micro-credentialing.”

Evans is also spearheading efforts for global recognition of Australian engineering qualifications.

“We’ve been working with our counterparts in Germany to set up the right framework to let the engineering profession work across boundaries,” she said.

“International physical mobility, when it can happen, is also very important.” 

Global partnerships are key to driving solutions to global challenges

The impact of the current situation and its unprecedented acceleration of the digitalisation of business has meant a focus on global partnerships to solve challenges, according to Professor Frank Wagner, Head of Strategic R&D / Cooperation, Fraunhofer IAO and Incoming Dean Industry & Enterprise, University of South Australia.

“It’s easy to make global collaboration happen – it's no longer about where you’re located but more the time zone of your partners, whether they be in Brazil, Australia, Asia or the Americas. 

Wagner’s role at Fraunhofer IAO takes on this global lens, working to bridge industry and universities. 

“We’re focused on finding new ways of collaboration, new ways of the digitalisation of industry as well as new ways of working in a post COVID-19 landscape,” he said. 

“But in addition to the digitalisation of factories, there are so many other sectors where there are opportunities for future global partnerships, such as in food, energy and health.  

“What’s important is that it’s not just about developing the technology – but it’s also getting ready for its adaptation across other sectors,” Wagner said. 

Cybersecurity underpins the success of Industry 4.0

“We rely on digital infrastructure, and the data that it carries, for almost everything we now do in our ‘cyber/physical world’,” said Michelle Price CEO, AustCyber – Australian Cyber Security Growth Network.

“When we look at it from a workforce perspective, and drawing on the deep analysis we’ve undertaken at AustCyber, we do need more skilled people within the Australian economy to guarantee trust in our digital infrastructure and the integrity of that data,” she said. 

“When we look at the skills challenge around cybersecurity, the size of the challenge is not insurmountable.

“But I do believe it does underpin the future success of Industry 4.0.”

Price said AustCyber has been working with its partners over the past three years to develop resilient and robust pipelines of skills needed across key competencies.

“It’s all about collaboration, but perhaps what's more important is also building on the collaboration that has already started, not just in Australia and not just in Germany, but globally,” she said. 

“We need to work together to drive the development of the skills needed – and this should be from the top down and to the bottom up.”

Story: Karen Matthews

29 June 2020


  • RMIT Europe
  • Advanced Manufacturing
  • Science and technology
  • Advanced Materials
  • Business
  • Future World of Work

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