Industry 4.0: accelerating evolution in employee capability and institutional agility

The phrase "Industry 4.0" seems to keep popping up in trade publications, higher education news sources and in wider media circles. Conceptually, this term denotes an increasingly connected and integrated world, harnessing big data, analytics, the internet of things, automation and new work patterns that seek to integrate human and automated processes in more flexible ways.

The pace of industrial change is accelerating and its scope is expanding. While this change is not necessarily a revolution, industry and government leaders are paying serious attention to what one might call an accelerated evolution. This changing pace of change will require our educational institutions – from primary to post-secondary – to revisit how we can best foster innovation, agility and adaptability to a new industrial and economic reality.

How are other countries responding?

Industry 4.0 isn’t just about smarter machines; it’s also about a workforce with new technical smarts and with a broader understanding of the big picture of workplace innovation. Within the British Columbia Association of Institutes and Universities, we’ve been researching how other countries are positioning their institutions by offering "Higher [i.e. post-secondary] Vocational Education" to proactively address the potential impacts from Industry 4.0 on educational development and delivery.

Consider Advanced Manufacturing as one example of the many sectors affected. As a leading company in Germany describes it, "Our people have played the decisive role in Industry 4.0. Connected manufacturing is transforming the requirements placed on employees. A lot of investment is going into new occupational training and qualifications designed to equip employees for Industry 4.0."

The Austrian Academy of Sciences recently commissioned a research study on the Effects of Industry 4.0 on Vocational Education and Training. While the study acknowledged that there were "areas still not well understood", it also identified specific challenges our institutions will need to address. Among them:

  • An accelerated pace of change in technical curricula, as the tasks and tools in the workplace "change much faster than has been the case in the past";

  • The understanding that in Industry 4.0, "it is not primarily the technical content that is critical…Much more relevant are the methods of teaching and the methods of learning…and this applies more now than in the past."

  • The development individuals who:

    • can think on their feet and act independently in increasingly complex cognitive tasks

    • have more IT know-how and are ready for rapidly changing IT knowledge

    • are capable of inter- and trans-disciplinary collaboration (i.e. across different subject areas, and with other departments, companies, customers and/or civil society).

New Partnerships for Higher Vocational Education, Industry and Governments

Leading-edge workplaces are working with educational institutions and governments in other countries on innovative ways to prepare graduates for this new workforce. For example, the German Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training continues to be a leader in "joining forces with stakeholders from trade and industry, academic research and educational practice to examine the consequences of digitalization for vocational education and training.“

We’re getting the same message from beyond Europe as well:

Like these Higher Vocational Education sectors in other countries, our focus is on building innovative co-operative relationships with workplace partners for new pathways in training and retraining, as well as creating new pathways toward an adaptable and nimble workforce. This transformation has broad implications for government policy, education and the nurturing of thriving communities.

Crafting a Canadian Strategy to Prepare Graduates for Industry 4.0: A Collaborative Challenge

Our institutions have a long history of collaborating closely with our industry partners on new programming, new pedagogies and new program structures to make sure our graduates will be ready for the roles required of them in the workplace. We know there are immediate skills gaps, mostly in mid-level skilled positions, where we need to provide more job-ready graduates – both from traditional entry-level programs and from ongoing re-skilling of experienced workers.

To prepare our graduates for the changes associated with Industry 4.0, we need to look beyond digital transformation to achieve a workforce transformation for all sectors of society. By way of conclusion, here are four examples of potential initiatives we could undertake in collaboration – and only in collaboration – with industry and government:

  • Enhance our collaborations with workplace and government partners to address the broader capabilities needed for an adaptive and agile workforce in the context of Industry 4.0. One promising development is the announcement in the recent Government of Canada Innovation and Skills Plan of a new agency to stimulate novel approaches to skills development for an innovative workforce. Industry 4.0 and Canada’s innovation agenda offer vast opportunities to catalyze a Made-in-Canada strategy to advance a Make-it-in-Canada reality.

  • Accelerate the adoption and adaptation of open resources, thus allowing us to redirect instructor time to resource development and experimentation with the new pedagogical challenges outlined above. That can include the open resources emerging from U.S. initiatives like and the Advanced Technological Innovation projects from the National Science Foundation’s Division of Undergraduate Education.

  • Track the research directions that are changing the technology space in which our graduates will work. For our example of Advanced Manufacturing, that would mean a closer liaison with major programs like the Manufacturing Innovation Centers in the U.S.

  • Commission Canadian research and pilot studies on the new integration of automated and human processes, and its expected transformation of the employment arena.

Thomas Carey serves as Executive-in-Residence for Teaching and Learning Innovation with the British Columbia Association of Institutes and Universities (as well as Research Professor at San Diego State University and Visiting Scholar at the University of Queensland). Salvador Ferreras is Vice-President Academic and Provost at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey BC.

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