I'm not a robot: How Covid-19 is accelerating the skills gap

While demand for robotics skills is booming education and training are coming under increasing pressure.

When Salford University in the UK announced in June this year it had received funding from the European Regional Development Fund for its £13m North of England Robotics Innovation Centre, it became the latest in a growing list of UK and European universities to offer courses on robotics engineering. There is an irony here in that the Salford region voted to leave the EU during the UK's referendum in 2016 but nevertheless, that EU funding will undoubtedly go to good use. In fact, while pre-Covid-19, robotics was unfairly regarded as the reason behind potential job losses, today, it could be the source of employment hope.

What is clear is that Covid-19 has accelerated job losses, exposing outdated business models and businesses over-reliant on old technologies and manual processes. Others have undergone rapid digital migration in an attempt to survive. According to Paul Grainger, co-director for the Centre for Educations and Work; Enterprise Lead for the Department of Education, Practice and Society at UCL Institute of Education, this in itself has highlighted a skills gap, especially among the over 35s. There is, he says, a need to balance education reform between the youth population and the missing generation of adults whose jobs are being replaced by technology.

"Pre-Covid-19, the fourth industrial revolution was already rebalancing employment away from repetitive manual work, in favour of automated, AI-supported roles," says Grainger. "Examples of this include robots replacing hospital porters, self-checkout systems in supermarkets and the high street, and online delivery reducing the demand for shop assistants, ultimately resulting in job losses."

We know of course that lower skilled, more mundane roles are targets for automation but as Forrester analyst Dan Bieler suggests in his report, The Future of the European Job Market, while it may be technologically feasible to automate a human position, it won't always be financially sensible to do so. However, Bieler points out that the situation is complex and dependent on specific industries. Digital twins and robots, he says, will play a major role in manufacturing while AI and blockchain will be central to financial services. Meanwhile 5G will be highly relevant to the media sector.

"The impact of technologies on the job market is a blend of job losses, job creation, and job transformation," he adds. "Estimates suggest that automation will affect 15 to 50 percent of jobs, leading to an evolution in the type of roles available."

What these new roles will be is still up for debate. We can second guess it to a certain extent. Sarah Danzl, skills expert at online skills platform Degreed suggests new jobs will emerge as societies adapts to digital transformation, the impact of Covid, and other macro trends.

"Contact tracers and temperature screeners are already becoming commonplace. Roles like cybercity analysts, augmented reality architects and robot dispatchers may be next," says Danzl, adding that to really grow an organisation and close the skills gap, there needs to be a culture of learning. Of course, Danzl has a vested interest here but she has a point. The idea that ad hoc training achieves anything lasting and valuable is surely now dated. A Deloitte future of work report last year claimed this is also in the interest of governments and therefore businesses should look for support for internal training schemes.

"It is also important to have the support of governments, enabling investment in vocational education and training and in life-long learning," said the report. "Policymakers should involve other key players, such as universities and professional centres to facilitate the delivery of training schemes and raising awareness about the importance of continuous learning."


Robot skills wanted

One area where we will see significant interest is robotics skills. As the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) recently revealed, by 2022, there will be nearly four million industrial robots working in factories worldwide, playing a vital role in automating production to speed-up the post Covid economy. This, says the IFR, will drive a huge demand for skilled workers in robotics and that "educational systems must effectively adjust to this demand."

Easier said than done. According to Saadia Zahidi, Head of Education, Gender and Employment Initiatives at the World Economic Forum, "very few countries are taking the bull by the horns when it comes to adapting education systems for the age of automation." She adds that those countries that are doing well, have had a clear focus on human capital development for some time, with South Korea, Estonia, Singapore and Germany the stand out leaders.

The rest still need a lot of work, especially the UK and US, which the Economist Intelligence Unit claims could do more to support lifelong learning and improving education policy.

"Re-training the existing workforce is only a short-term measure. We must already start way earlier - curricula for schools and undergraduate education need to match the demand of the industry for the workforce of the future," comments Dr Susanne Bieller, IFR´s General Secretary. "Demand for technical and digital skills is increasing, but equally important are cognitive skills like problem-solving and critical thinking. Economies must embrace automation and build the skills required to profit - otherwise they will be at a competitive disadvantage."

We are already seeing forward thinking economies emerge in this respect. Estonia's rise up the tech and education ladder is well documented but any economy that manages to balance the rise in automation with a highly skilled, relevant workforce will do well. When you consider the impact Covid-19 is already having on work, education and services, it's easy to see how robotics will have an increasing role. It's potentially a new age of prosperity. As older, established businesses (and perhaps even countries) struggle, perhaps the playing field is momentarily levelled.

"Robots won't cost jobs, they just create opportunities for different skills," says Dr Paul Rivers, managing director at robotics company Guidance Automation. The challenge is who is going to take up those opportunities? For most companies that remains a key question and one that doesn't look as though it's going to get a sensible answer anytime soon.