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Skilled crafts and economy 4.0

Interview with Prof. Dr. Friedrich Hubert Esser

"Economy 4.0" is the buzzword of the hour. In an interview with the German Skilled Crafts Journal "Deutsches Handwerksblatt" (16 July 2015) BIBB President Friedrich Hubert Esser explains the impact of the digitalisation of the world of work on skilled crafts.

Professor Esser, what is special about Economy 4.0?

Esser: Powerful computers and the internet have been with us for a long time. But we have now arrived at a point where we can really talk in terms of a data explosion which will continue to advance exponentially. The so-called Moore's law describes a phenomenon which we have been observing for over 50 years. This states that the processing capacity of computers doubles over a period of around 18 months. Taken together with advancing digitalisation, we are now witnessing something similar to breaking of the sound barrier - a new era of innovation which has been unimaginable up to now.

The start of this era, which is characterised by big data, can certainly be compared with the invention of the steam engine. In the 18th century this made it possible to generate many times more the energy than that which it had previously only been possible to generate by means of human or animal power. This marked the start of the first industrial revolution. By utilizing the performance capability of computers today and in the future, we will increase the range of opportunities which the economy and society can create from this many times over. However, this will also pose new challenges for us. We are therefore only able to speculate at the current time on who the winners and losers of this development will be. What is clear is that vocational education and training will contribute to ensuing that as many people as possible will benefit from this rapid structural change.

What pointers do you see for the skilled crafts?

Esser: Digitalisation will mean that skilled craft production processes will change in the same way as the portfolio of skilled craft services and products. The innovative problem solutions associated with this as well as the changes in working cultures might be a major opportunity for the skilled crafts.

How will this work in practice?

Esser: You have to think in two directions. On the one hand, there is the input from manufacturers. Think about drones, for example, with the aid of which roofers today are already able to examine roofs for potential damage. On the other hand, there is the impetus from businesses themselves. If an optician wants to sell their products online, they have to be able to connect their information platform to the distribution partner's platform on the internet. To do this the optician requires the relevant competences in order to, as in this case, bundle together the range of their products and to quickly make it available as broadly as possible to the industry. Whereas previously the optician was only able to offer their glasses and contact lenses locally, they are now provided with new possibilities right up to marketing opportunities extending beyond national boundaries.

What does digitalisation mean for skilled workers?

Esser: Digitalisation is already advancing rapidly in the automotive industry. There is a continual increase in demands from production. Work which is unergonomic is increasingly being completed by machines. The human is increasingly becoming the thinker and the controller in the production process. It is sometimes wrongly assumed that in future only university graduates will be required in this area. In order that the value added chain of apprentices, workers, foremen and technicians remains in Company 4.0, the work process design and the qualifications issues associated with this must come together coherently. This is the reason why the notion of dynamic skilled crafts is a theme for discussion. The skilled crafts will change as the work changes and in doing so will, of course, remain a material factor in the digitalised economy.

How do the skilled crafts organisations come into play?

Esser: Organising qualifications is a core task for professional and commercial organisations. The 60 year old dental technician should also know how to produce a denture using a 3D printer. Young people starting their career are attracted by new technologies per se. Organisations must take the people with them and generate enthusiasm among their members for new developments. The skilled crafts and SMEs are certainly aware of Economy 4.0. Studies show, however, that the opportunities presented by digitalisation have not yet really arrived in many businesses. We must do a lot more in this area.

But there is also work to be done in education and training.

Esser: Years ago the skilled crafts campaigned together with Microsoft for the Computer Driving Licence. Unfortunately, even today, this basic qualification is still not a standard for everybody in education and vocational training. The young generation is certainly growing up with the new media. An international study shows, however, that pupils in Germany only have a mid-table ranking in terms of IT competence. Looking ahead to future requirements, we need a training standard for IT, or more specifically for media competence. This does not exist currently, neither for general nor for vocational education and training. Being able to use smartphones to make calls, research or for gaming is certainly not enough. It should be taken for granted that people have the ability to work with text processing programmes or to produce a spreadsheet calculation. We also have to know how an operating system functions and how to improve data protection. These are fundamental key skills in an increasingly digitalised economy and society.

What role will inter-company trainee instruction play in this process?

Esser: A very important one. In the Federal Government's meeting about the future at Schloss Meseberg, I underlined that training and competence centres have a role to play which enhances, encourages innovation and safeguards quality. Inter-company instruction provides us with excellent opportunities, in particular, to take our small business, their trainees and their employees with us en route to Economy 4.0. As part of inter-company training as well as advanced training events which can take place on-site in the training and competence centres, new techniques and standards can be learned and, from these, product and service ideas can be developed in the businesses. Inter-company training and competence centres can once again become promoters of innovation.

Which changes do you anticipate for job descriptions?

Esser: Together with the relevant Federal Ministries, we shall select example occupations and investigate how the world of work, or of products and services is changing in these cases. The results then become the basis for answering the question of the extent to which the existing job descriptions have already adopted these changes, the extent to which they may need to be revised and also whether completely new occupations are required. We are starting with the IT occupations. A preliminary investigation is currently under way here. But I urge caution against the belief that the digital age will entail a large number of new occupations. The current job descriptions have been formulated with the future in mind and offer scope for adaptation. I therefore anticipate more evolution and less revolution in the occupation system.

The BIBB is working on studies looking at the development of the education and training market which also relate to the skilled crafts. What does this involve?

Esser: We are examining the current developments in the dual education and training system and the consequences which result from this for ensuring availability of specialist skills. Two challenges come to the fore in this: the fall in apprenticeship contracts and the trends towards the university entrance qualification and the degree. By examining this we want to identify relationships, recognise problem areas and offer recommendations for action.

To what extent must the skilled crafts be active?

Esser: The skilled crafts have a well-developed and permeable training provision. But we cannot rely solely on additional qualifications for particularly high performers and the Master Craftsman examination. Members of generation Y have specific expectations regarding their occupation. On the one hand, besides a qualification which offers security for the future and has several options, young people regard earnings potential and prospects as well as career opportunities within the occupations and businesses as important. On the other, the combination of family and career, the use of modern media and techniques as well as teamwork is also important for young people. The skilled crafts must therefore work with a double package of attractive education and training courses and with equally attractive employment options or prospects. Only in this way can it respond to the competition for specialist skills.

  • The interview with BIBB President Friedrich Hubert Esser appeared on Thursday 16 July 2015, (issue no. 13/14) on page 2 in the “Deutschen Handwerksblatt” (German Skilled Crafts Journal).