Digitisation and automation of skilled workers give hope that the labour market will ease soon. According to experts, however, the topic has to be viewed in a differentiated way.
The economic downturn does not solve the skilled labour problem. However, just under half (48 %) of managers in mechanical engineering and plant construction believe that increasing automation and digitisation will alleviate the shortage, according to a recent survey by personnel service provider Hays. Experts take a critical view of this. “Especially in the highly qualified segment, I do not see that digitisation could help,” warns Holger Hirsch, for example, who is responsible for the Hays plant and mechanical engineering division. “Only the profiles change. The process engineers will then develop concepts for automation and digitisation, for example.”
Surveys conducted by the Institute for Applied Work Sciences (ifaa) in 2015 and 2019 also indicate that the problem of skilled workers cannot be solved so easily. The studies showed that the majority of participating companies in the metal and electrical industries assume that digitisation will reduce employment in the lower wage groups. At the same time, however, companies expect an increase in employment in the medium and upper wage group — exactly where skilled workers are currently lacking. “A clearly relieving effect of digitisation on the shortage of skilled workers by subsidising human labour is therefore not to be expected,” says Dr Frank Lennings, Head of the Business Excellence Division at ifaa. “Digitalisation can, however, make a considerable contribution to making better use of the existing potential of skilled workers.”
As a concrete example, Lennings cites the case of a machining service provider that shows that digitisation can also be worthwhile for small companies. “They have thought about it there: What would be a really sensible solution for us in everyday life that would simplify our processes and reduce errors, that would not drive us to the brink of ruin and for which we would not need external experts, with whom we would then first plan two years?” The result was that the company purchased digitalised, network-capable measuring instruments. Since then, measured values have been transferred automatically and no longer have to be read and noted by employees manually and cumbersomely.
Digitisation works even on a small scale
“Digitalisation does not always have to be the fully networked factory,” summarises Lennings. “They can also be simple solutions for certain fields where, for example, many errors occur or capacities are lacking.” Among other things, it is a matter of relieving employees of unproductive routine tasks, expanding their possible applications with the help of assistance systems, for example, or providing targeted information in critical decision-making situations, for example through real-time data, forecasts or simulation results.
In theory, this sounds very good, but in practice it is still a problem. “We see that many of our customers are only at the beginning of their digitisation projects,” says Hirsch. The fact is, however, that those who do not digitise cannot benefit from the positive effects of the shortage of skilled workers and may even be left behind. So it's high time to seize the opportunity and develop approaches for your own company — preferably together with existing specialists.