Digitalisation of the world of work – perspectives and challenges facing vocational education and training 4.0

Torben Padur, Gert Zinke

The increasing digitalisation of the economy is generating other forms of work organisation besides the use of new technologies and a higher degree of automation as a result of greater networking and mobile working. Starting with an academic assessment of the issue, the article outlines how the demands on skilled workers in connection with this are changing and the consequences this will have for vocational education and training. Finally, the way in which the BIBB is already actively involved in shaping this transformation is highlighted.

Industry 4.0 – Inspiration from industry and science

In April 2013, the Deutsche Akademie der Technikwissenschaften e. V. (Acatech 2013) [German Academy of Science and Engineering] and the Forschungsunion Wirtschaft und Wissenschaft [Industry and Science Research Alliance], with funding from the Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung (BMBF) [Federal Ministry of Education and Research], jointly presented implementation recommendations for the Industry 4.0 future project. This defined Industry 4.0 as the fourth stage of industrialisation involving the intelligent networking of resources, information, objects and people on the basis of cyber physical systems (CPS). A dual strategy has been called for in Germany with regard to this which, on the one hand, makes Germany the leading provider of intelligent production technologies and secondly creates, and serves, lead markets for CPS technologies and products (cf. Acatech 2013, p. 6). The fact that there will be major changes to employee work and competence profiles as part of this process justifies the position of initial and continuing education and training as one of the eight areas of action defined in the strategy.

While the Acatech study primarily approaches the issue from the perspective of technical development, the Frauenhofer IAO study “Production work of the future-Industry 4.0” – completed more or less simultaneously – has a strong focus on the changing organisation concepts of work and is very largely based on expert interviews (cf. SPATH 2013). The three trends referred to here are of importance for future vocational education and training:

  1. The convergence and increasing linking of production and knowledge work (p. 135).
  2. Changed organisational and decision making paths and consequently also process operations resulting from opportunities for holistic networking of production systems (p. 122) which lead to reorganisation of work tasks.
  3. The demand for greater flexibility in work capacity.

The impacts of digitalisation on the qualification requirement have already been examined as part of the BMBF early recognition initiative (www.frequenz.net) and assessed in terms of their future development. The initiative set out to identify qualification requirements and to develop options for action. Due to Industry 4.0, new importance is now attached to the results of the early recognition research conducted between 2008 and 2011 regarding qualification requirements, for example the Internet of Things in the areas of production and logistics.

Consequences for work organisation and qualification development in the business

As far as possible, a coordinated approach in terms of timing is important for the structuring of technological development, work organisation and qualification development in relation to an individual business. HIRSCH-KREINSEN (1990) had already established that, in reality, there tends to be a significant time delay in the adaptation and continued development of organisational concepts in relation to the development of technology. He also established that “in terms of work organisation, integrated systems are used in a structurally conservative manner to a very large degree” (p. 36). In 2013, an expert described the following situation which reflects this: “There is an IT manager who is responsible for the ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) systems, and then there's the production manager who is responsible for what's left. We often notice that they do not speak to each other as often as they might. We need to change the strategy here.” (SPATH 2013, p. 122).

The following situation description (cf. info box) illustrates the corresponding changes in the company and the challenges faced as a result. Vocational education and training is in a tight spot and must deliver. Effective and simultaneous coordination between the development of technology, work organisation and qualification development thus presents an opportunity for the optimisation of production process and ultimately for the operating results.

Maintenance process in automated and networked production systems

Observations* carried out by the BIBB and the cooperation partners show that, in the maintenance area of companies and despite new technologies, the insistence on traditional structures stands in the way of work organisation possibilities for optimising process operations. In terms of work organisation, maintenance is often separated into mechanical, electrical engineering and IT-based areas of responsibility. Training occupations such as industrial mechanic, electronics technician for operating technology and information technology specialist serve as the template for this.

Vocational education and training in companies focusses on these traditional structures and this is very apparent in the selection of training occupations and the company-based organisation of training. Large time budgets continue to be set aside for basic training in the area of metalworking technology and electrical engineering. These time budgets are not in place at the end of training to support the delivery of other qualifications in the context of, for example, programming and automation technology.

However, increasingly, hybrid qualification profiles containing a common cross-section of all the occupations mentioned as well as other qualifications are needed in the actual implementation of maintenance work. At the very least, specialist departments are expecting all-rounders who have sufficient IT competence to be able to operate within the networked production system.

* 1. BIBB VW project “vocational education and training – digitalisation in the world of work in production support areas of the automotive industry based on the example of Volkswagen, and potential consequences for related occupations” at www2.bibb.de/bibbtools/tools/dapro/data/documents/pdf/at_42488.pdf  (retrieved 14.10.2015)
2. Occupational field analysis of industrial electrical occupations at www2.bibb.de/bibbtools/de/ssl/dapro.php?proj=4.2.395

Requirements of vocational education and training 4.0

Vocational education and training is also subject to constant change as part of the increasing digitalisation. On the one hand, traditional occupations are coming under scrutiny, and on the other there is the emergence of potentially new occupations, for example in the service sector. Career paths in vocational education and training must therefore be highlighted and close integration is required in the development of initial and advanced education and training occupations. In specific terms, this means that in areas of retraining, and advanced and continuing education and training is it a matter of:

  • structuring informal and formal learning with a focus on demand,
  • designing permeable and adaptable education and training sequences,
  • enabling education and training personnel to manage the technological change,
  • creating access to adequate education and training activities, and learning opportunities and also financing these,
  • developing appropriate advanced training regulations.

In an initial step, the qualifications necessary for current work tasks need to be determined in order to achieve a permeable and adaptable structure for education and training sequences. In a next step, formats in terms of time, location, organisation and effort/costs must be developed in relation to the nature and scope of the qualification to be delivered. This has followed a relatively traditional approach up to this point. However, the options in terms of structuring have changed as a result of the availability of digital media and of the changes which have also taken place in the learning and media behaviour of the target groups. In this sense, this is a matter of the adaptability of the education and training sequences in a changed learning culture. For example, how will learning online, learning using data gobbles or in online communities be used, integrated in company-based concepts and teaching/learning scenarios, and valued?
This also results in further questions regarding the future of the vocational education and training system:

  • What will the demand be in certain occupational fields for skilled workers, where might the demand develop for new training occupations?
  • How will the relationship develop here between dual education and training occupations and (dual) degree courses?
  • In view of the increasingly dynamic development of requirements, how should the ratio of broad vocational basic capabilities, specialisation and continuing education and training be structured in the context of training occupations.
  • Is it necessary to run conventional occupations in parallel with 4.0 occupations in selected occupational fields on either a transitional or long term basis?
  • It is possible to identify changes in core qualifications across all occupations, e.g. in relation to process competencies, IT competence and problem-solving behaviour? How might these ideally be delivered?
  • How does vocational education and training remain attractive in view of the easier access to universities and the greater value placed on these by societies?

Priorities in the work of the BIBB

Numerous projects have already been initiated within the BIBB in order to contend with the impacts of increasing digitalisation on vocational education and training shown.
Over the last few years, the BIBB has already completed a vocational field analysis in the area of electrical occupations (cf. ZINKE/SCHENK 2014). Amongst other things, this established that production is increasingly automated and that skilled workers are having to handle increasingly complex processes. In order to take these changes into account, the project has provided recommendations for updating the training occupations in the electrical area.

Together with Volkswagen, the BIBB this year began an examination of company-based education and training within the group. This involves a closer examination of the direct impacts of increasing digitalisation on practice. Trainers, skilled workers and managers are being surveyed in relation to the area of maintenance in order to gain an overview of the demands on skilled workers in this area. The focus here is on both changed work tasks and changed activity profiles, as well as new requirements for vocational education and training. This intention here is to generate impetus and recommendations for action for the continued development of vocational education and training on the one hand, as well as the modernisation of training occupations on the other. Initial results suggest that a changed vocational profile is required in the area of maintenance which will now need to be specified in greater detail in a further step.

On the instruction of the Bundesministerium für Wirtschaft und Energie [Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology] the BIBB is currently in the process of conducting a preliminary study into the restructuring of IT occupations. In this regard the BIBB is also very active in the commercial area. Media occupations, for example, which today are already faced with digital requirements, are checked on a regular basis for the accuracy of fit. Initiatives are also in place for new occupations, such as in the area of online retailing.

In addition to the above-mentioned projects, field investigations are also taking place as part of continuous observation. The amendment and updating of initial and advanced education and training occupations is one of the core tasks of the BIBB. New technologies, transforming work requirements and future demands on skilled workers are continually being taken into account in the continued development of job profiles.

These processes require that science, politics and practice are brought together in a constructive exchange. The BIBB represents an ideal platform for this. The increasing digitalisation of the world of work has thus not only become a key theme in vocational education and training, but in particular also in the BIBB.

ACATECH: Umsetzungsempfehlungen für das Zukunftsprojekt Industrie 4.0 [Implementation recommendations for the Industry 4.0 development project]. Frankfurt/Main 2013

HIRSCH-KREINSEN, H.: Technikentwicklung and Arbeitsorganisation [Technology development and work organisation]. In: LAUR-ERNST, U. (Ed.): Neue Fabrikstrukturen – veränderte Qualifikationen [New factory structures – changed qualifications]. Berlin 1990, p. 35 et seqq.

SPATH, D. (Ed.): Produktionsarbeit der Zukunft – Industrie 4.0 [Production work in the future – Industry 4.0]. Stuttgart 2013

ZINKE, G.; SCHENK, H.: Berufsfeldanalyse zu industriellen Elektroberufen als Voruntersuchung zur Bildung einer möglichen Berufsgruppe [Occupational field analysis of industrial electrical occupations as a preliminary investigation regarding the formation of a possible occupational group]. Wissenschaftliche Diskussionspapiere [Academic Research Discussion Papers], Issue 155. Bonn 2014 – URL: www.bibb.de/veroeffentlichungen/de/publication/show/id/7456  (retrieved 14.10.2015)

Head of the “Industrial and Technical Occupations” Division at BIBB

Dr., Research associate in the “Electrical, IT- and Scientific occupations” Division at BIBB

Translation from the German original (published in BWP 6/2015): Martin Lee, Global SprachTeam, Berlin