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Fourth industrial revolution and skill development

| Updated: March 15, 2020 22:02:21

Fourth industrial revolution and skill development

Since the dawn of the fourth industrial revolution, there has been a growing concern over job loss. Creating jobs in the industrial economy has been the primary means for increasing per capita income, and addressing poverty. Globalisation of manufacturing and service value chain has been a blessing for these countries, starting from China, India to Bangladesh. There is no denying that technology progression played a key role in connecting the low-skilled labour force to the global value chain. But the progression of the technology itself is now posing threat to this model of turning labour into economic outputs. Technologies like rbotics, atomation and 3D printing are making existing skills obsolete, and are asking for new skills. Does it mean that labour force now should have higher level skills than in the past to maintain comparative advantage over machine? If yes, what type of skill should we focus on? What is the role of education and training institutions in developing those skills?

In industrial economy, humans and machines have been continuously competing and cooperating in getting tasks fone. Machine designers are in a race of  developing better machines so that they become better alternative to human labour. On the other hand, the interface between machine and human operators are being increasingly simplified by taking the advantage of technology progression. As a result, contrary to common perception, skills requirement to collaborate with the next generation machine in getting jobs done has been continuously decreasing. The technology stack driving the fourth industrial revolution has been taking this reality to a new height. On one hand, it has been reducing the role of codified knowledge in acquiring the capability of collaborating with machines. On the other hand, its human-machine interface is increasingly getting interactive as well as intuitive. For example, although smartphones are using far more advanced technologies than feature phones, skill requirement for using smartphone is more intuitive than was needed for feature phone. Similarly, skill requirement for operating digital sewing machines is far less than needed for operating conventional ones. This has been found to be the underlying philosophy of designing next generation machines by taking the advantage of technology progression.

The example of 3D printing for manufacturing spare parts explains it further. The light engineering sector in many developing countries like Bangladesh has been a major source of employment in industrial economy. One of the outputs they produce is spare parts. Maintenance of diverse machineries starting from automobiles to manufacturing equipment largely relies on the local light engineering sector for supply of spare parts. The competence of producing a copy of broken parts demands the reconstruction of 3D model, analysis of material composition and processing of materials through different steps. Skill requirement for performing such tasks of producing spare parts appears to be significantly high. Often, upon having decade-long apprenticeship and on-job training, a graduate from vocational or technical school succeeds to acquire the capability of reconstructing design and replicating broken parts. The emergence of 3D printing is now set to bring a change. Will the replication of spare parts with 3D printing demand higher skills? Of course, it will require different skills in operating 3D printers. But like in the past, will it demand rigorous training and experience? Once the 3D printers for producing machine parts mature, operators are just required to place the parts to be replicated in a chamber. The software will process data produced by built-in sensors to determine martial composition and develop the 3D geometrical model. Upon doing so, the machine will ask the operator to pour material powder in certain chambers. After that, 3D printer will start gluing the material with laser layer after layer as per the precise 3D model, without requiring any further human help. With such minimal human role, 3D printer is able to produce high-precision replica of spare parts with very little or no wastage. The capability requirement of operating such 3D printers appears to be highly intuitive, making institutional skill development training, and even experience, mostly irrelevant. On one hand, 3D printer demands far less skill, and on the other hand, it reduces labour requirement substantially.

There appears to be a common belief that the emerging economy in the age of the fourth industrial revolution will be demanding the same amount of labour. The challenge is to reskill the labour force, as next generation production machinery will demand different types of skills. Such belief has been promoting the strategy --"Skills as the Currency of the Labour Market" for the new economy. Particularly, in developing countries, major skills development programmes to cope up with the fourth industrial revolution are underway. Often, they are taking loans from multilateral and bilateral lenders, and recruiting foreign trainers to offer training. The main reason is  that massive job loss is underway, and the countervailing measure has been to upskill the labour force.   

There is no denying that next generation production machinery will demand different set of skills from human workforce to collaborate with machines. But to determine the training need, there should be greater clarity about the likely change. It's time to focus on developing detailed mapping of skills to tasks and jobs. Based on technology forecasting and adoption patterns, such mapping should be dynamically updated for meeting future skill demand. It's intriguing to observe that there have been suggestions from high-profile think tanks that education system should be reformed, making it skill-centric. Well, employers recruit graduates to perform certain tasks, and there is a need of skill set for performing those tasks.  What type of tasks should be targeted for skill development in determining skill development needs? Task demand is not uniform across industries and countries. It largely depends on the strategy and policy pursued by countries as well as firms. For example, if developing countries like Bangladesh keep pursuing the strategy of importing technology and adding value through labour in producing economic output, what type of skills should the education system develop among science and engineering graduates? If existing strategies and policies of developing countries for industrial economy remain unchanged, the eroding role of labour in productive activities will likely make any amount of skill development irrelevant as countervailing measure of job loss in the age of fourth industrial evolution. 

It appears that the well circulated thesis of massive upskilling or reskilling of workforce as a countervailing strategy to cope up with the fourth industrial revolution is highly premature. On one hand, next generation machines will be demanding less skill, mostly intuitive in nature. Moreover, demand for labour will be rapidly reduced in producing each unit of output, whether spare parts, shoes or shirts. Before embarking on massive training programme, the focus should be on mapping skills to tasks, and assessing the role of skill development effort. On the other hand, developing countries should focus on updating the strategy and policy of industrial economy for increasing the supply of mental capacity demanding tasks, making education and training relevant.

M Rokonuzzaman PhD is an academic and researcher on technology, innovation ands policy. zaman.rokon.bd@gmail.com


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