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Historian Tom Devine on Industry 4.0

What can the past teach us about the future of work?

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Lessons from history

Change is happening more quickly than ever. But we can learn how to adapt by looking at periods in the past when technological and social change were happening at a rapid pace. Historian Tom Devine shares some of his thoughts on what this kind of change has meant in the past – and what it will mean for the future.

What is Industry 4.0?

Industry 4.0, or the fourth industrial revolution, is what many are calling the period of intense technological and social change that we started to experience in recent years – with the change only set to intensify. The effects of this on the world of work are expected to be more keenly felt as time goes on and more and more work can be done by machines rather than people.

Tom Devine agrees a revolution is on the way – even though he objects to the idea there have been three revolutions on the same scale before.

“This revolution,” he says, “promises to challenge our work and leisure lives, economic and political systems, societal structure, and indeed, even raise important questions about what is the nature of humanity itself, all in a way which the previous so-called revolutions did not.”

In other words, the coming industrial revolution will be even more disruptive than those of the past.

How will employers approach Industry 4.0?

One way that employers are likely to respond to Industry 4.0 is by seeking out different skills to the ones we think of as most highly prized at the moment.

“Most of the employers in the future will probably not specify any degree type (except of course in areas such as medicine, law, science and technology),” says Tom. “They’ll mainly want trained minds.”

What this means in practice is that new, flexible skills may be in more demand than highly specialised skills. Increasingly, manual and digital tasks can be performed by machines – and as the same time, the input needed from humans is decreasing. That means rather than seeking staff with narrow, targeted training, employers may prefer people who are adaptable and can turn their hand to many different tasks.

A new way of thinking for a new way of working

Tom continues, reflecting on what training for this broad kind of skills base might look like. “When I taught at Strathclyde there was a one-year course required as part of engineering degrees which looked at history, literature, philosophy, ethics and religion. We need to reintroduce this kind of thinking again. We need the type of discussion and debate that was prevalent during the Scottish Enlightenment.”

According to Tom, “The graduate of the future must also have a greater emphasis on critical intellect, how to argue, how to try and convince, how to weigh evidence and come to convincing conclusions. They must also be able to write in clear English cogently, and have a degree of control and mastery of numbers.”

Learning on the job – more innovative than you think?

While formal education will always be useful for building reading, writing and maths skills, the kind of soft skills Tom identifies as being crucial in the future are often best developed on the job. That’s why apprenticeships and other forms of work-based learning are highly likely to become more and more important as Industry 4.0 gathers pace.

That's why learning how you can benefit from apprentices is an important step to future-proofing your business.

Find out more about apprenticeships at apprenticeships.scot.

Take a closer look at Industry 4.0

If you're curious about Industry 4.0 – and what it means for you as an employer – read about the Skills 4.0 project led by SDS and the Centre for Work-Based Learning. The project delves into the details of how the world of work is changing and what skills employers should consider cultivating.

Read about Skills 4.0 here.