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Davos 2016: Will the Fourth Industrial Revolution Unleash a Global Jobs Crisis?

Posted By Paul Tate, February 02, 2016 at 2:12 PM, in Category: Next-Generation Leadership and the Changing Workforce

World-Economic-Forum.jpgAs many of the world’s leading politicians, industrialists, and academics gathered on the snowy slopes of Davos, Switzerland for the 2016 World Economic Forum (WEF) late last month, a new report warned that the world may face a net loss of over 5 million jobs across multiple industries over the next few years as a result of new technologies and disruptive approaches to manufacturing.

What’s more, the only way manufacturers will be able to secure the new skills they’ll need in this brave new world, is to start to take action now. 

The overall theme of the 2016 Davos event, Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution, focused on the potential impact of the increasing convergence of multiple sectors of technology and industry – from smart factories, intelligent robotics and 3D printing, to autonomous vehicles, cloud networking and biotechnology. It's scope covered multiple aspects of life, from industry and education, to demographic change, to urban expansion in emerging economies and new Smart Cities.

And while the new wave of technological convergence may open up profound new possibilities for human innovation and industrial change, often known as Industry or Manufacturing 4.0, it may also bring with it an exponential increase in global risk.

“We must develop a comprehensive and globally shared view of how technology is affecting our lives and reshaping our economic, social, cultural, and human environments,” said WEF founder and executive chairman Klaus Schwab, in the opening session. “There has never been a time of greater promise, or greater peril. 

The WEF report, called The Future of Jobs and published a few days before the Davos event, explored what this sea-change in technological and industrial approaches may have on the global jobs market. The conclusions are sobering. Not only will the convergence trend cause “widespread disruption” to business models “but also to labor markets over the next five years”, warns the report, “with enormous change predicted in the skill sets needed to thrive in the new landscape.”

Based on interviews with 350 senior executives across nine industries in 15 of the world’s largest economies, the report concludes that “current trends could lead to a net employment impact of more than 5.1 million jobs lost to disruptive labour market changes over the period 2015–2020, with a total loss of 7.1 million jobs—two thirds of which are concentrated in the office and administrative job family—and a total gain of 2 million jobs, in several smaller job families.”

A combination of both technological and socioeconomic factors will drive this change, suggest the authors.

The top five technological drivers the report identified, ranked by the percentage of total responses, include:

  • Mobile Internet and cloud technology (34%)
  • Advances in computing power and big data (26%)
  • New energy supplies and technology (22%)
  • The Internet of Things (14%)
  • Crowdsourcing, the sharing economy and Peer-2-Peer (12%)

The top five demographic and socioeconomic drivers cover:

  • Changing work environments and flexible working arrangements (44%)
  • Rise of the middle class in emerging markets (23%)
  • Climate change, natural resource constraints and the transition to a greener economy (23%)
  • Rising geopolitical volatility (21%)
  • New consumer concerns about ethical and privacy issues (16%)

The more positive news for the manufacturing industry is that while “manufacturing and production roles are also expected to see a further bottoming out [they] might have the worst behind them and still retain relatively good potential for upskilling, redeployment and productivity enhancement through technology rather than pure substitution.” 

So what new jobs will be in most demand in the years ahead for those next generation workers?  Data analysts, software developers, engineers, product designers, specialized trainers, and leaders capable of taking their organizations through significant transformational change will be at a premium, suggests the report. But general office and administrative roles, traditional manufacturing workers, and many construction and extraction jobs face the fastest declines.


The big challenge, notes the report, will be finding those new skills, and retraining current manufacturing workers to face a disruptive future. Manufacturing companies themselves, hopefully with government support, will now need to take a much more proactive lead if they want to skill up sufficiently to succeed, it seems.

“While much has been said about the need for reform in basic education, it is simply not possible to weather the current technological revolution by waiting for the next generation’s workforce to become better prepared,” argue the WEF authors.

“Instead it is critical that businesses take an active role in supporting their current workforces through re-training, that individuals take a proactive approach to their own lifelong learning, and that governments create the enabling environment, rapidly and creatively, to assist these efforts.”

“The talent to manage, shape and lead the changes underway,” concludes the WEF report, “will be in short supply unless we take action today to develop it.”

What are you doing to secure the new skills your company will need in the Fourth Industrial Revolution? 

Written by Paul Tate

Paul Tate is Research Director and Executive Editor with Frost & Sullivan's Manufacturing Leadership Council. He also directs the Manufacturing Leadership Council's Board of Governors, the Council's annual Critical Issues Agenda, and the Manufacturing Leadership Research Panel. Follow us on Twitter: @MfgExecutive

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