Is Automation the Best Way to Close the Skills Gap?

Sarah is a sales & marketing content writer, with eight years of experience within the engineering & manufacturing industry.  Working both at Qimtek and on a freelance basis, she can usually be found hammering away at a keyboard or with her head in a pile of engineering drawings. 

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There's no denying that the skills gap is one of the biggest threats to the UK engineering industry. With an ever-shrinking rate of young people entering the profession, something needs to be done to ensure that the available skillset keeps up with national demand. While the government has embarked upon a number of recent drives to increase interest amongst younger generations, such as Tomorrow's Engineers Week, it is yet to be seen whether these efforts will bear fruit. As a result, a modern contingency may need to be put in place to ensure the longevity of the UK industry.

Although there is a lot of uncertainty and ultimately fear surrounding automation, it may prove to be the solution we need to plug the skills gap. Here's why:

The Skills Gap - An Ongoing Problem:

If we can learn to embrace automation instead of fearing it, then our national industry could potentially gain a valuable boost.

In recent years, the skills gap has only become more prevalent. The UK Shortage Occupation List has grown to include all types of engineering professions, highlighting the extent of the problem that the country faces. Without action, this is only set to worsen; academic professions have long outweighed vocational careers in terms of popularity, while the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the apprenticeship availability remains to be seen. This could spell increasingly bad news for the buoyancy of our national manufacturing efforts.

Incidentally, within the same period that human engineering skills have declined, robotic assistance has been on the rise. Many have regarded the onset of automation with hesitation, as well as scepticism surrounding its overall effect on the job market. However, in a time where there are not enough candidates to fill engineering positions, surely automation could provide a much-needed answer to the skills gap dilemma. If we can learn to embrace automation instead of fearing it, then our national industry could potentially gain a valuable boost.

READ: How Will the COVID-19 Pandemic Affect the Skills Gap?

Automation - Friend or Foe?

Instead of shrinking the job market, automation could actually create many more jobs.

As I mentioned in my 2019 article 'Rise of the Robots! Tackling the Fears Surrounding Automation', there are plenty of misconceptions about modern technology. While the notion that robots could gain superior intelligence and overthrow society may worry some, the common fears surrounding automation are far less dramatic. These have far more to do with potential job losses and the gradual obsoletion of human involvement than the beginning of a dystopian film plot. These concerns are completely valid; however, the portrayal of automation within the media has led to some rather ambitious views of automation's role. While robots may be used to replace some of the more dangerous, or labour-intensive tasks within the manufacturing sphere, human assistance is still absolutely necessary, meaning that the idea of the engineering and manufacturing industries becoming fully automated is ultimately unrealistic.

Instead of shrinking the job market, automation could actually create many more jobs. This may surprise some people; due to the labour-intensive nature of manufacturing and engineering, it is widely believed that these industries would be the heaviest-hit by automation-related job losses. However, in addition to the human assistance required by robots, or 'cobots', automation demands the input of people with a digital background, favouring those in IT and programming professions. This is why it could serve as the missing piece in the skills gap puzzle.

READ: Tomorrow's Engineers Week - Why We Need To Inspire the Younger Generations

Redistributing Skills:

The use of automation to address manual tasks will likely remove the desperation for skilled staff that many companies face.

IT, programming and software-related skills have never been more prevalent than they are right now. The growth of technology has moved along at a breakneck speed, meaning that many young people entering the workforce have chosen to train in these areas. While automation may fill the gap pertaining to manual skills, it will accelerate demand for the technological skills that are available in abundance, leading to a redistribution in the job market that complements candidate availability.

That's not to say that the positions for skilled engineers will disappear entirely, however. Engineering and manufacturing is unlikely to ever become fully automated - at least not for many, many years to come. Instead, the use of automation to address manual tasks will likely remove the desperation for skilled staff that many companies face, leaving it more proportionate to the amount of engineers available.

Although entirely untrue, engineering has long suffered from a stigma which portrays it as a stuffy profession, meaning that younger generations have been dissuaded from viewing engineering as a viable, attractive career choice. The UK government is working to turn this stance around; however, there is no denying that technological professions will continue to dominate manual roles in terms of appeal. With that being said, these career choices often cross over more than is realised - something that will be perpetuated by the progression of automation in the coming years.

READ: Brexit & the Skills Gap - A Perfect Storm For UK Manufacturing?

Will Automation Solve the Skills Gap Dilemma?

Despite the speed at which automation has progressed within recent years, it is still very much in its infancy. This means that it is unlikely to solve the skills gap dilemma overnight; however, as a long-term solution, it could certainly be a great way to achieve a closer match between the job market and the available skills.

By resizing and redistributing the skills required for employment within engineering, automation could breathe new life into an essential industry which has been long-neglected as a potential career choice.

Many people still view automation as a threat, but the potential it offers and the jobs it could create seem to remedy the current issues almost perfectly. By resisting robotic assistance, the engineering industry may be doing itself a disservice; instead, the skills gap could simply be a symptom of the natural evolution of manufacturing.