Industry 4.0 is on everyone’s lips. But what are the real implications for the VET sector?

Let’s explore!

Industry 4.0 What is it?

A recent report recently released by NCVER by Pi-Shen Seet and colleagues on the implications of Industry 4.0 and the proposed establishment of an Industry 4.0 Industry Reference Committee has focused attention on the issue of future skills.

As the Australian Industry and Skills Committee’s communique points out the Industry 4.0 IRC will be concerned with “…the competencies students need in areas such as big data, supply chains, automation, digital skills and cyber security. These competencies could then be included in a range of qualifications across the national training system.”

Essentially, therefore, they are cross-industry skills in the same way that generic skills are. Generic skills, of course, include the ‘usual suspects’ like team-work, problem solving, creativity and continuous learning that are also needed to underpin the successful development of industry 4.0 skills. The two go hand-in-hand.  Both are needed to help people move between jobs and to transition successfully to new and emerging ones. As the NCVER report has noted: “…disruptive technologies are influencing the demand for both technical and soft skills in many occupations”.

On the other hand

Yes, these are important emerging changes to the nature of work. Yes, we have undoubtedly underemphasised generic skills in the past in terms of their prominence in competency standards and in the teaching and learning programs that flow from them, as AiG has argued. On the other hand, the danger is that we get too carried away with the significance and pace of change. Yes, we have to prepare for the future. No, things will not change overnight. There is a significant lag time in the take-up of emerging practices, so it is important not to lose the old in a headlong rush to adopt the new. As the research published by NCVER suggests:

“Concerns about a sharp decline in the demand for routine tasks as a consequence of automation and robotics need to be tempered by what is actually taking place in different industry sectors and the likely pace of change, given these realities.”

These changes will also have impacts that depend on a firm’s size, their stage of development, and “their absorptive/innovative capability and capacity.” So, in many cases jobs may change – sometimes quite significantly – but not disappear.

An excellent international perspective on Industry 4.0, or I4 as it was referred to by the German Government who originated the concept in 2011, is provided by INSTRKTIV at this link The article highlights the perceived challenges and preparation requirements for this new industrial revolution.

So, what are the implications for the VET sector?

The report suggests VET will “need to review VET course offerings and the technical capabilities of teaching staff in support of the uptake and diffusion of disruptive technologies.” Existing demand won’t tell us what the future demand will be though, so VET will need very good access to high quality industry intelligence to decide when and how to change its offerings. This will depend not only on the IRCs and Service Skills Organisations, but also the local intelligence gathered by VET providers in their interactions with employers. What we need to get better at is feeding all the information back in and then out again to help providers deliver the programs and qualifications employers really want. In short, intelligence needs to flow both down and up.

A second implication is that the sector needs to get far more serious about generic skills: those “unique human skills are not easily replicated by artificial intelligence and other disruptive technologies” to give them their proper emphasis.

The report suggests the need for a hard look at how training packages are developed, as well as how it might be possible to develop other accredited training solutions that are more diversified and just in time. All of this fits with the likely future scenario of increased demand for VET skills updating, diversification in qualification types and offerings to enable better lifelong learning.

The authors point to other impediments that need to be overcome. These include the lack of strong integration between the VET and higher education sectors, and the resourcing constraints and frequent restructuring in the VET sector.

Finally, the Commonwealth Department of Industry, Innovation and Science has an Industry 4.0 website. One of the Working Groups of the Prime Minister’s Industry 4.0 Taskforce is concerned with work, education and training. We’ll try to keep an eye on anything it comes up with. One possibility is the use of Testlabs to help develop better education and training programs.