Lifelong Learning and Automation - The Need to Reskill and Upskill the Workforce

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Automation has its benefits, but to minimise disruption, a lifelong learning culture needs to be implemented in organisations to reskill and upskill employees.


The need for lifelong learning in the face of intelligent automation – developing human skills for human workers

Organisations will need to think about lifelong learning differently in order to capture the opportunities presented by intelligent automation. It’s been recognised for a while now that lifelong learning will be the bedrock of Industry 4.0. As automation continues to take root and flourish, workers will need to develop skills which are unique to humans. According to the World Economic Forum, these skills are:

  • Innovation
  • Creativity
  • Critical thinking
  • Design
  • Emotional intelligence (EQ)
  • Problem solving

The 2018 Future of skills and lifelong learning report from the Government Office for Science specifies that one of the key challenges to lifelong learning in the UK is automation and technological change.

There’s no doubt that automation is a major force for driving wealth and growth in productivity. However, it involves transitions that will ultimately prove disruptive to the current workforce, and will need careful management by employers and HR leaders.

According to the report, economists put forward the case that the reduction of human labour in routine tasks (like cashier work, due to self-service tills) has led to a decrease in demand for low and middle-skilled occupations.

A 2017 McKinsey study found that the most high-risk jobs involve physical activities or the collection and processing of data.

The key sectors potentially affected by automation-based disruption are:

  • Retail
  • Accommodation
  • Food services
  • Manufacturing
  • Warehousing
  • Transportation.

So which job landscapes are less likely to be disrupted by automation?

According to Frey and Osborne (2014), jobs less likely to be affected by automation include:

  • Jobs requiring high cognitive intelligence
  • Jobs requiring high social intelligence
  • Jobs requiring non-routine tasks, such as those which involve creative or critical thinking
  • Jobs in management
  • Jobs in healthcare
  • Jobs in education

How can the rise of automation be addressed by lifelong learning?

Even the most cursory glance at the findings above will lead to the conclusion that humans will need to think smart in order to both benefit from automation and stay ahead of the game.

Workers may need to adapt to the changes wrought by automation either mid-career or at various careers stages – predominantly by reskilling or upskilling.

For many organisations, supporting the adaptability and employability of the current workforce will be as important as recruiting and training future talent and young people entering the world of work for the first time.

What is reskilling?

‘Reskilling’ is when people alter their skillset, often in order to take on new roles.

HR teams can’t always rely on new applicants who are already trained in newly required skillsets in order to keep up with technological change.

Even if an organisation faces a skills shortage, reskilling your team ensures that:

  • The organisation remains productive
  • It adheres to ethics in HR principles
  • It mitigates disruption.

Embedding reskilling and lifelong learning into the organisation achieves all this by retaining employees who are well-versed in an organisation’s daily practice, company culture and business goals.

What is upskilling?

‘Upskilling’ is when people extend and update their existing skillset, often in order to progress their careers or perform their existing roles with an added level of complexity and competence.

An example of upskilling might be that a company decides to use new data analysis software, and all affected employees will need to be trained in the use of the software.

Ways for HR to embed reskilling and upskilling as part of lifelong learning:

  • Take initiative to research what skills will be needed in the near future
  • Compare your findings to the current skill set of the workforce
  • Implement training programmes to help employees improve their skill set to meet near-future requirements
  • Provide in-house mentors to support with upskilling, so that learners can keep developing their skills after training with recourse to the advanced knowledge and insight of another employee
  • Invest in development plans customised to the individual - all employees will have different levels of not only seniority but also ability and experience in a range of skills. With managerial guidance, employees can track their progress with their personalised development plans.