From education to employment

UK must support lifelong learning to be ready for the coming wave of automation

The increasing sophistication of automated systems will have far-reaching implications for work and employment, and governments should be ready for upheaval. “WHO IS READY FOR THE COMING WAVE OF AUTOMATION? The Automation Readiness Index“, created by The Economist Intelligence Unit and sponsored by ABB, assesses how well-prepared 25 countries are for the challenges and opportunities of intelligent automation.

The Automation Readiness Index compares countries on their preparedness for the age of intelligent automation. In assessing the existence of policy and strategy in the areas of innovation, education and the labour market, the study finds that little policy is in place today that specifically addresses the challenges of AI- and robotics-based automation.

No country has yet to “take the bull by horns”, in the view of several experts interviewed for the study. A small handful, however, including South Korea, Germany and Singapore— the overall index leaders—have undertaken individual initiatives in areas such as curriculum reform, lifelong learning, occupational training and workplace exibility.


Intelligent automation is expected to boost the importance of both education related to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and of so-called soft skills, which allow workers to trade on their uniquely human capabilities. However, in all but the highest-scoring countries, little has been done to prepare future workers through school curricula or, just as importantly, teacher training. At the same time, some experts warn that a focus on soft skills would be a distraction in countries where basic education is still not up to scratch.


Several governments are looking for the right formula to encourage citizens to voluntarily undergo periodic skills upgrading. Singapore, for example, is experimenting with funding “individual learning accounts”, which adults use to support training courses throughout their lives. Germany’s Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs is examining a similar scheme, as well as a modified form of “employment insurance” to fund skills upgrading throughout people’s lives.


Germany’s system of vocational and technical education has long been held up as a model for other countries. Its system, along with those of South Korea and Singapore, help these three countries share leadership of the labour market policy category of the index.

Experts interviewed for the study, however, warn that vocational training in most countries remains too focused on low-skilled occupations to be of use in preparing young people for the automated workplace.


The UK’s score of 73.1 places it 8th in the index overall.

The UK ranks above average in the Labour Market Policies category, the country’s Innovation Environment scores particularly strongly, owing to an industrial and digital strategy that promotes AI and robotics R&D and focuses on linking companies, top universities and research centres, as well as the development of regional clusters.

However, the UK is still lagging behind a number of countries in terms of how ready it is for the age of automation, and education was deemed the weakest link, with the problem starting at primary school level, with the report recommending the UK do more to support lifelong learning, in particular, to boost its rank in education policy.

The report said the UK has not yet been as explicit as other countries in developing a strategy to integrate 21st century skills, like problem-solving and critical thinking, through its education system.

Ash Merchant, Director of Education, Fujitsu UK, responded to the news:  

“Technology is forcing our industries to evolve at a rapid pace; from retail to finance to manufacturing, business leaders are telling us that their organisations will not exist in their current form in five years, making it crucial to employ people who have 21st century skills, like problem-solving and critical thinking. Our recent research showed that 3-in10 UK business leaders are unsure whether the UK is prepared for a digital future. Of all the challenges companies face, half of business leaders admitted a lack of skilled employees has the potential to impact growth and revenue the most. This is clear evidence that more has to be done to prepare businesses and employees for the digital age.

“The reality is students of this generation are digital natives who accept their future is to be driven by technology, even when the institutions around them may be slower to adapt. As a result, the education environment needs a refresh in order to maintain its place as a centre for knowledge, stimulator of ideas and supporter of the next generation on their path into the workplace. Learning and innovation go hand in hand, and our work though the Fujitsu Ambassador Programme is a great example of how industry can collaborate with the education sector to help students and teachers adapt. We know that students of this generation are digital natives, but to get them ready for the world of work we need to also pay attention to equipping our teachers with the training and tools they need to help students navigate the digital future we’ve created for them.

“With 2.3m digitally skilled workers needed in the UK by 2020, all industries face a real challenge. To ensure the UK remains at the heart of digital transformation, it is essential that industry and educational bodies – public and independent – work together to make technology accessible for all.”

The livelihoods of sixty six million people are at the risk of automation, according to the findings of a new study published by the OECD, “Automation, skills use and training“.

After gathering evidence from the UK and 31 OECD countries, the working paper fears service sector jobs are the most vulnerable. This includes roles in food, postal & courier services, land transport as well as manufacturing and agriculture.

Robots could also pose a serious threat to jobs that only require a basic to low level of education. According to the report, these workers currently have limited motivation, low skills and suffer from a lack of prospects. Artificial intelligence is also predicted to cause a rise in youth unemployment rather than the displacement and retirement of older workers.

Whilst the findings indicate a third of all jobs are at risk of some form of automation, authors Nedelkoska and Quintini play down any need for panic. Based on current knowhow, certain jobs and tasks are difficult to automate. In professions that require social and cognitive intelligence, perception and manipulation, it would seem we humans are not so easy to replace just yet.

“Adult learning is a crucial policy instrument for the re-training and up-skilling of workers whose jobs are being affected by technology,” Nedelkoska and Quintini said.

Jason Seebaruth

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