Vocational Education & Training 4.0

Reinhold Weiss

Dear readers,

At least since the Hannover Trade Fair for Industrial Technology in the spring of 2014, Industry 4.0 has become Germany’s synonym for a new Industrial Revolution based on digitalisation, automation, networking and flexible production processes. The resulting production facilities are capable of manufacturing different products and multiple versions of products “to order” without retooling delays.  

Control and problem-solving competence are in demand

Industry 4.0 holds out the prospect of a surge in productivity which will bring a new wave of rationalisation in its wake. The vision of a factory (almost) devoid of human beings is looming ever closer. Many high-tech companies have already made a start at turning it into a reality. As yet, however, the specifics of what Industry 4.0 really means cannot be foreseen with any accuracy. But past experience teaches us that no inevitable consequences for vocational training need be assumed merely on the basis of technological development, because both technology and the uses of technology can be shaped.
It has already been some years since the first automatic manufacturing facilities were installed. These are controlled and maintained by skilled workers who completed their initial vocational training in an era when Industry 4.0 was unheard of. Industry 4.0 imposes continuous change on the work tasks that make up production processes, ranging from process planning and preparation to the construction and adaptation of production facilities, and from process surveillance and safety to the necessary support services. What are the implications of this for vocational training?
Generally the importance of IT knowledge is increasing. Control and problem-solving competence are in demand. The current occupational profiles in the metalworking and electrical occupations, particularly those of the Mechatronics Fitter and the Production Technologist, have gone some way towards reflecting this change. They provide common minimum standards and are designed to be technology-neutral, giving the companies and part-time vocational schools scope to adapt them to current needs. But Industry 4.0 also calls for a new quality of IT know-how. Accomplishing this would involve modernising countless training occupations and probably creating some new ones. An important foundation could be laid by carrying out an evaluation of the relevant training occupations.  

An upgrade to Vocational Education & Training “4.0”

Beyond bringing training regulations up to date, the question arises as to the future status of vocational education and training within industry. In automated processes, vocational learning needs to be structured differently. Errors and stoppages pose too much of a risk. More of the learning must therefore be organised in separate spaces, e.g. in virtual learning environments. As a corollary, the corresponding learning opportunities need to be borne in mind at an early stage when production facilities are being designed. Vocational education and training must be involved in this in future.
Even today, companies are cooperating more with partners in the higher education sector to train the next generation of skilled workers. But vocational education and training must not leave this field to the higher education establishments alone, particularly as no uniform standards exist as yet. On the contrary, it must develop its own concepts for Vocational Education & Training “4.0”. These include new partnerships between learning venues and hybrid qualification routes in collaboration with higher education establishments, e. g. in the context of advanced vocational qualifications.
BIBB will engage in dialogue with experts from vocational practice and research and draw up proposals as to how the requirements can be satisfied in vocational education and training. Enabling employees to gain qualifications must be integrated into the implementation of Industry 4.0 from the very start. For it is also important to shape the world of work to meet human needs.

Deputy President of the Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training (BIBB) and Head of Research

Translation from the German original (published in BWP 1/2015): DEBORAH SHANNON, Academic Text & Translation, Berlin