by Victoria Montag, Sector Head, Industrial Automation, GAMBICA 

Industry View from

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Unlike most other people, the question I have been asked the most in job interviews is not “why do you want this job?” Rather, the interviewer, having cast an eye over my qualifications, would enquire why I decided to study classics alongside physics, chemistry and maths at A-level.

 

I used to like this question, it was as if my choice, made aged 16 so as not be placed completely into the “science” camp, made me somehow special. Now that I am older, I realise that I’m probably not.

 

There is a lot of pressure to choose what we want to study, and by extension, what we want to be “when we grow up” from a pretty early age. But human interests are generally broader than our education system accommodates for. This is demonstrated pretty well if you talk to a smallish child. Take my second cousin. At the age of seven he wanted to be a saxophone-playing detective… and a dinosaur.

 

As adults, we know there are various practical issues, biology being the most problematic, against making this a viable career option. But, dinosaurs aside, what would you recommend my cousin study? It is unlikely that he would be able to be both a professional musician and a police officer, but under the current education system he would be forced to choose a path to one job or the other before he is old enough to vote. Yet this expansive set of interests, aspirations and skills that children and, I believe, adults too, possess, is the very thing this country needs to embrace now, and will need more of in the future.

 

A job for life is becoming a thing of the past. It’s a change driven by increased migration between towns, cities and countries and a generational change in attitudes to work. Certainly my generation are happier to move jobs regularly, seeking new challenges, better salaries and improved work-life balance or promotion prospects. And certainly, technology plays a part in this shifting of the job market too.

 

The worry of automation “taking” jobs is not new – in manufacturing, industrial automation has been around since the late 1960s. Industrial automation has over this time increased operational productivity, safety and profitability – today, less “dull, dangerous and dirty”, manufacturing is one of the best sectors to work in. Nevertheless, it would be disingenuous for me to suggest that this has all been a positive change to the workforce in the sector. In the mid 20th century, manufacturing was the largest sector by employment numbers, now it’s the fourth largest. So I can understand the concern from some quarters on the impact of automation as a whole on employment, especially given this period of rapid digital transformation – not just in manufacturing, but across almost every sector. No one knows how long this cycle of fast-paced technological change will last, but what is certain is that technology, and with it, cities, industries and jobs, will within a decade be very different.

 

This is why multifarious interest and abilities, and the emphasis on life-long learning, will be essential.

 

In July, then Education Secretary Damian Hinds announced a National Retraining Scheme. The aim of this scheme is to help those whose jobs are at risk of being displaced by AI and automation retrain and find new careers.

 

This is a step in the right direction, but it is unlikely that any job will not be touched in some way by new digital technologies. By zoning in on the possible displacement of jobs, the scheme doesn’t address the fact that new skills will be needed and, indeed are needed now, if we are to take advantage of the economic gains to be had by becoming a world leader in AI and automation. Even today there is a chronic shortage of automation engineers in this country. Programmes that encourage children to become engineers are all well and good, but we need to retrain adults too.

 

People in their 30s or 40s going back to college or starting university shouldn’t be regarded as exceptional, and it’s crucial we let children know that they don’t have to be “science” or “arts”, or choose at 16 what they want to be for the rest of their lives. With some investment, and a collective change of mindset, within a decade the UK will have a workforce best placed to cope with whatever future technologies come our way.


For more information, visit www.gambica.org.uk.    

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