Human Skills Are as (If Not More) Important as Technology For Industry 4.0

By the SMU Social Media Team

Much of modern Singapore’s prosperity can be traced back to its industrialisation strategy in the 1960s and 1970s, which transformed the country into an exporter of everything from fish hooks to pharmaceuticals.

Although today the service industry has become more visibly dominant, manufacturing still represents around 20 per cent of Singapore’s economy, and supports 400,000 jobs. However, the sector faces huge challenges, as shortages of labour and low productivity undermine Singapore’s competitiveness against other regional centres. Slowing demand in global markets has added to the longer-term issues, meaning that manufacturing in Singapore has had a difficult few years.

With a small, ageing population, the domestic labour constraints are likely to remain in place. However, coming shifts in technology may allow the country to regain some of its competitive advantages. Global manufacturing has already gone through several profound changes, through several phases of adoption of automation and robotics. The next, which has been dubbed ‘the Fourth Industrial Revolution’ or ‘Industry 4.0’, is the consequence of rapid advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Industry 4.0 will mean that decision making will increasingly be driven by data, powered by algorithms, and that the role of people within the system will change substantially. In that environment, a country’s manufacturing sector will rely less on the availability of affordable labour, and more on the availability of the right skills within a smaller, but more highly-qualified workforce.

Job roles that can be easily automated are likely to disappear or diminish, but new roles will be created, says Tan Hwee Hoon, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour & Human Resources at the Lee Kong Chian School of Business, Singapore Management University.

“In the next wave, job roles and job descriptions will not be static. In fact, job descriptions will change with technology that is continually made available. For example, it may be big data and data analytics for now, but it may morph with the change in technology innovation,” she says. “Job descriptions will be dynamic and skill sets continually updated. It may be meaningless to talk about job roles. In fact, what is important may be an underlying set of skills that provide the foundation for the job—e.g. statistics and data analysis.”

In November 2017, the Singapore Economic Development Board, along with a German manufacturing firm, TUV SUD, released a set of guidelines, the Singapore Smart Industry Readiness Index, to help manufacturers to prepare for Industry 4.0. One of the main thrusts of the guidelines was a reminder that people and processes are as, if not more, important than technology.

Preparing people for roles in Industry 4.0 means providing them with a mix of technical skills and practical experience, Assoc Prof Tan says.

“To prepare for Industry 4.0, technical education becomes basic and important as it forms the foundation. In addition, technical education has to be ‘deep’ as well. For business education, there is the need for more real-time exposure to the larger environment and students to more effectively apply what they learn in the classroom into the real world,” she says, adding that this may herald a move away from pure classroom learning towards a more ‘blended’ curriculum, with a larger component of practical problem solving.

“One should move away from thinking that learning is done in school and that is all that is. That is, one should not have a fixed mindset towards skills and knowledge but a learning mindset,” Assoc Prof Tan says. “Fundamental disciplines will remain and will be the bedrock for innovation, [and], the ability to unlearn and relearn will be fundamental.”

Singapore has some of the elements in place to be highly competitive in this new industrial environment, Assoc Prof Tan says, but there remain some challenges due to the focus within much of the education system on rote learning.

“Singapore’s comparative advantage is its focus on the technical foundation-the workforce is well schooled and drilled in the basic disciplines. However, the need to be agile, to unlearn and relearn is lacking in Singapore. This is because rote learning continues to be a basic way of acquiring knowledge despite the shifts in the last 10-15 years. Grades are still important and hence students spend a lot of time mastering a body of knowledge,” she says.

“However, the mindset change is still slow to take root. So while Singapore provides a good foundation in its education system to take advantage of Industry 4.0, Singapore has to work harder at inculcating a mindset of change and continual learning. Societies that are able to harness both mastery of knowledge and mindset of learning are the ones that can take advantage of the new environment. Without the basic mastery of the basic disciplines, one would not be able to go far. With only the mastery of the basic discipline without an ability to change, one cannot go far as well. Hence the two key elements have to go hand in hand.”