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Industry 4.0 | Are the robots running late?

If the robots are really on the march to take our jobs, then it’s possible they have been delayed and are running a bit late. Prior to the pandemic, endless reports about the global threat of robotics, automation and AI were reaching fever pitch. Our report, Skills for Jobs that Don’t Yet Exist, was one of them and warned about the risks of a generation studying and training for jobs that will be replaced by technology. One, now famous, academic report from 2013 estimated that half of all jobs would be lost to automation by 2030. PWC placed this at about 30% in the UK by the early 2030s.

Technology is increasingly pervasive in the workplace, and the arrival of ChatGPT, and other generative artificial intelligence models have sparked another wave of anxiety about the dangers, but the extent to which automation and AI will replace jobs has been, so far at least, significantly overestimated. New studies, from McKinsey, PWC, the World Economic Forum and the LSE have shown that the net job loss from technological deployment is about 1%. Automation in factories and warehouses has increased but not at the scale anticipated. The UK has a lower robot density than other developed countries and manufacturing in the UK is now at risk of being less competitive unless it invests in automation. We were meant to be living in a world of driverless cars, instead we have a severe shortfall in HGV drivers. With increasing labour market shortages and an ageing workforce, it seems the robots cannot come quick enough.

Yet we should not be complacent about the challenges that we face in providing skills for the future. It may be difficult to predict which jobs will be replaced by technology and when exactly this will happen, but one thing is certain: The future of work is changing and having a productive role will depend on higher skills. Professor Leslie Willcocks, Emeritus Professor of Work, Technology and Globalisation at the LSE argues that ‘Skill Shifts’ are likely to be a bigger issue than job losses. Over the next 10-20 years, low-skilled work will go from 44% of the global workforce to around 32%.

The UK has a longstanding productivity problem and economic policy has for some time been predicated upon the theory that productive growth is dependent on a higher qualified working population. This has driven university expansion over the past 20 years. The UK sends a larger proportion of all school leavers to higher education, than the US and the European average. But the UK’s economy continues to endure poor productivity performance with too many workers in low-wage, low-skilled sectors compared to their counterparts in other developed countries. The skills mismatch is a conundrum at the heart of the UK’s productivity puzzle.

Adapting to the ongoing challenges of Industry 4.0 will shift skills towards non-repetitive work, requiring higher levels of creative, cognitive and emotional skills—distinctive human abilities that cannot be easily replicated. It will also require continuous upgrading and adaptation – a constant skills evolution. This suggests a different approach to the lifelong identification, delivery and acquisition of skills.

Can we say, with any confidence, that our government, educational institutions, and businesses are well placed to deal with this?

We will be discussing the above and much more at a dedicated session during our

'Skills Matter' Conference on Wednesday 20 March:

Lifelong Learning Pathways for future skills

Digitalisation, Green Economy, Industry 4.0

Discussion Points

  • Identifying skills needs for jobs that don’t yet exist

  • Skills transferability across sectors and the role of employers

  • Attracting and retaining talent by offering reskilling and upskilling opportunities


  • Ashley Wheaton, Vice Chancellor, University College of Estate Management (Moderator)

  • Joanna Binstead, Head of Education and Skills, Siemens

  • Prof. Keith McLay, Provost - Learning and Teaching, University of Derby

  • Prof. Keith Ridgway, Executive Chair, National Manufacturing Institute Scotland


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