Gearing up for Industry 4.0

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As the Rochester region seeks to revitalize its economy and unemployed residents pursue new opportunities, a recent study from Monroe Community College might provide a map for the way forward. 

The college’s Economic and Workforce Development Center, in its Future of the Technician Workforce Study, offers insight into skills likely to be in demand in the next five years as technologies such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality transform the way people do business.

“It is important that businesses in our region understand how these smart technologies can be used for their benefit and that they have access to a workforce that is competent in the application and use of smart technologies in the business environment,” says Todd Oldham, vice president of economic and workforce development and career technical education at MCC.

Based on input from more than 100 industry professionals from 80 organizations in the region, the report examines the role of transformative technologies in technician job functions. It looks at four industry sectors: manufacturing and automation, information technology, health care, and human resources and professional services. 

Though the study was a result of pre-pandemic discussions, MCC says the coronavirus crisis is accelerating the fourth industrial revolution as well as the college’s implementation of workforce development strategies in relation to the education and training of future technicians.

These findings are expected to guide employers’ and MCC’s efforts as they seek to bridge skills gaps and offer new possibilities for the regional workforce.

The Rochester Beacon posed a few questions to Oldham. His responses are below.

ROCHESTER BEACON: Why was this research necessary? How did it come about?

Todd Oldham

TODD OLDHAM: As a community college, we wanted to better understand how the skill sets and competencies of technicians required by local employers were changing because of businesses’ adoption of smart technologies like automation, artificial intelligence and the industrial internet of things. As an educator, an ongoing concern of the technician workforce is how well the learning outcomes in our technical curricula align with the changing requirements of the local employers seeking to hire our graduates. We felt it was important to convene a larger conversation with members from industry to help us answer questions around what specific skills will be needed in the future workplace.

Another concern is how the adoption of Industry 4.0 technology, like automation and artificial intelligence, is likely to make some technician roles obsolete. We wanted to have a clearer sense of how some technician roles will require upskilling to prevent the worker from becoming displaced due to various flavors of automation and AI. Because we train for many job roles, it was important to invite participants representing the IT, manufacturing, health care and professional services sectors so we could get a more holistic, cross-sector understanding. The study itself came to fruition when MCC was able to obtain funding from the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, which covered the cost of conducting the research.

ROCHESTER BEACON: In your opinion, what are the most significant findings of the study?

OLDHAM: A key highlight for me is how increasing levels of connectivity made possible through smart technologies associated with the industrial internet of things (IIoT) are changing the importance of the data stream and pushing that stream further down into the organization. With so many devices and technologies now speaking to each other within the work environment, a larger amount of data is both being created and made accessible to the technician in real time. The technician role is now part of the data stream much more than we have seen in the past and as a result, is now interfacing with transactional data in a way that requires real time analytical skills. This has important implications on how we as educators of the technician workforce prepare students for environments requiring much higher levels of data literacy, including skill sets involving data collection, analysis and visualization. Not surprisingly, systems thinking associated with the types of system integration making this connectivity possible is also a strong competency reported as needed by participants in the study. 

ROCHESTER BEACON: How do you see digital industrial technologies impacting our region’s future?

OLDHAM: These highly connected technologies are being adopted by different industries globally in order to create greater efficiency, profitability, and higher levels of quality and customer experience. That being the case, it is important that businesses in our region understand how these smart technologies can be used for their benefit and that they have access to a workforce that is competent in the application and use of smart technologies in the business environment. One can see that if as a region we don’t understand the benefits from adopting Industry 4.0 tech, we will be at a greater disadvantage in the future. This is why it is very important that as a region we come together to ensure that we are investing in our workforce so that we have a modern technician talent pool prepared to perform at higher levels using analytical and problem-solving skill sets. 

ROCHESTER BEACON: How can the community participate in developing this next generation of technician workers? 

OLDHAM: As these digital transformations continue to develop, it will be critical for the community to have an accurate understanding of how these transformative technologies are changing how people will interface with technology in the workplace and the types of roles that are being created. MCC is using this study’s findings to help inform the programming and overall design of the Finger Lakes Workforce Development Center, which will be located at the college’s Downtown Campus. The purpose of this new training facility is to train and educate residents for technician roles based on Industry 4.0 skill sets. As part of this new operation for the community, we are seeking partners that can assist in creating greater awareness of these technician roles and their needs within industry. As with most workforce efforts, developing the next generation of technical workers is a community effort. It will be collaborative and involve industry, education and the community coming together to better prepare Rochester and our residents for future opportunities in the ever-evolving job market.

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.

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