A recent white paper by the UK-RAS Network, part of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), has highlighted the urgent need to reskill the UK workforce and provide training to managers so that they can “work safely and effectively alongside robots”.
Focusing on the skills and education needed in robotics and autonomous systems, the ‘Preparing the workforce for 2030’ report highlights the critical importance for the UK workforce to get to grips with the evolution of how jobs will be carried out and the inevitable increase in the role played by robots.
The fast paced acceleration in the adoption of AI, robotics, autonomous systems and data science has led to a skills gap in specialist skills, which if not addressed, will only widen as a result of Brexit. To compound the problems, the UK has the lowest adoption rate out of all the G7 nations, lagging behind the likes of South Korea (the country with the highest robot density in the world), Germany, US, China and Japan. Less than 5% of annual European shipments of robots, equating to 1% of the global total, are attributed the UK according to the findings.
STEM skill shortages in the UK
So, just how serious are the AI and robotics talent shortages in the UK? The report argues that the level of STEM skills across the wider workforce and management are no way near sufficient. Schools are not preparing their students for Fourth Industrial Revolution or ‘4IR’ technologies and even more worryingly, graduates from these technical disciplines are lacking in the hands on experience of using the very tools they have been learning about during their courses.
Diversity and in particular the number of women in STEM jobs is another pressing matter for the UK – indeed, less than 1 in 10 women work in the UK’s engineering sector, which is the lowest number of any country in Europe. That said, there is some progress being made as the number of women taking apprenticeships is going up and organisations such as STEM Returners are helping those looking to take up new roles following career breaks. Gender isn’t the only issue however, there is also a distinct lack of representation of under-represented groups such as ethnic minorities or the neuro-diverse.
Although reskilling remains the overriding challenge, as well as receiving digital and tech training, workers must also possess strong soft or ‘human’ skills, which are the very attributes that robots of course don’t have. A Censuswide survey found that while problem solving, verbal communication skills, collaboration and teamwork were the most important skills that employers were looking for, they’re not part of any syllabus or adult skills training.
Clearly, the workplace in 2030 will be a very different beast to that in 2021. With COVID-19 and Brexit both accelerating the adoption of robotics, VR and AR technology, it is all too evident that reskilling of both workers and managers must be a priority, and that the economy needs a more diverse workforce if tech skills gaps are to be closed.
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