What does the digital work world have in store for us?

Industry 4.0, digitisation, artificial intelligence, robotics, automation, system networking. And what about the people?

18. June 2017

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Will, as forecast by a study published in the Frankfurt Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung in 2016, five million jobs be lost to intelligent systems alone in the next five years? And what exactly will happen to the approximately 15 million jobs in Germany that are more or less directly dependent on industrial production?

It is only natural that some people employed in manufacturing, as well as in management, are becoming somewhat nervous in view of the increasing developments in artificial intelligence. Will people become superfluous – superseded by smarter, more efficient, and less error-prone machines?

In reality, the future of work within the context of the digital revolution doesn’t look quite so grim. Many researchers and observers even project a positive development on the labour market: because, according to VDI Director Ralph Appel in the April 2017 issue of Computerwoche, “digitisation will bring production back to Germany”. This is Appel’s summary of a study commissioned by the VDI (Association of German Engineers) at the University of Karlsruhe and the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research (ISI). The results of the study: the application of digitisation technology has a positive effect on the transfer of production capacities back to Germany.

Digitisation leads to the transfer of production back to Germany

Unions also have a different perspective on the future of work. For example, the Hans Böckler Foundation, which works closely with unions, published a paper in 2015 with the title “Böckler Impuls” that dealt with the role of qualification for keeping pace with digitisation. In the paper, the foundation refers to a study carried out by the Boston Consulting Group: “Most observers agree that the jobs of less qualified workers are more threatened than others”. But even this realisation is by no means certain. The use of data glasses or tablets for industrial production could help people to learn new tasks, making it possible for “less educated people to carry out qualified jobs”.

Qualifikation is the key

It is already clear that the wide-spread use of new technology is changing the demands for qualification: “Companies with modern technology not only train more workers, they also offer further training for larger portions of their workforce”, said Joachim Möller, director of the Institute for Employment Research (IAB), quoting the study carried out by his institute in early 2017. About 40 percent of employees at companies that are actively dealing with digitisation or automation participate in further training. In other companies, by comparison, less than 30 percent of employees participate in further training, according to the IAB director.

This development concurs with the common opinion among experts who believe that there will be an “upgrading of qualifications”. Not only IT skills but also the ability to think independently and responsibly within networked processes will become increasingly important – in all areas of production.

Industry 4.0 in Stuttgart

In the EY ALTER exhibition at the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, an entire section of the exhibition is dedicated to the future of work. Until 30 June 2017, museum visitors can experience how Mercedes-Benz is connecting demographic and digital development with one another. A lightweight robot is the moderator for several topics and Mercedes-Benz employees present the changes taking place in the company – in person and digitally.