According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), working with robots won't be like the Terminator movies at all.
Good news: Robots will not be replacing human workers any time soon.
Even better news: In fact, the modus operandus of the future will be for humans to collaborate with robots to get work done.
This was one of the surprising findings of a new International Labour Organisation (ILO) study which looked at how technology was changing jobs and enterprises in countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), said Mr Gary Rynhart, Senior Employers Specialist Southeast Asia, ILO at a media briefing.
According to the report “ASEAN in transformation: How technology is changing jobs and enterprises”, the robot age is already a reality among ASEAN manufacturers who have been incrementally introducing robotic automation to improve productivity, quality, consistency and workplace safety.
Significant for Singapore is the impact of robots on the electrical and electronics (E&E) sector, which accounted for 41.7 per cent of the country’s exports in 2014.
“Robotic automation in this sector is ‘human-centric’, occurring in the form of collaborative robots or ‘cobots’ able to perform repetitive, high precision and difficult tasks,” said the ILO report.
The study found that widespread use of robots does not automatically lead to job replacement.
Instead, current trends reveal that robots are being deployed to raise the productivity of workers rather than replace them.
This will also create considerable high-skilled work as optimised robots and machinery will need capable technicians and engineers.
Robots and Cars
The need for high-skilled workers was echoed in the auto sector, which is also of significance to the country. Auto parts accounted for US$4.3 billion of exports in 2014.
Singapore is also becoming a hub for automotive R&D with large companies such as Delphi and Continental having an R&D presence in the country.
Engineers with specialised knowledge of automated process design and robotic programming will be necessary particularly as vehicle technology increases.
“The industry needs new types of highly-skilled workers who are difficult to find – engineers with specialised knowledge on automation and robotic programming, and with STEM backgrounds,” said Ms Jae-Hee Chang, Employers Specialist, ILO.
In the retail sector, which accounts for almost 20 per cent of employment in services in Singapore, the research found that highly skilled workers, such as those with technical data management skills, will be required, as well as workers with sophisticated soft skills necessary for customer service.
As e-commerce grows, workers with mobile and web skills will be required.
Singapore has been laying the groundwork for these changes in the skills landscape.
In a national brief prepared for the Singapore business community, ILO noted that over 52 per cent of students in Singapore are studying STEM programmes compared with the average STEM enrolment in the rest of ASEAN, which is 35.8 per cent.
The Future of Skills
Despite this, lack of skills remains a critical issue and was identified as one of the key threats businesses here will face in the coming decade.
To address this, the government has announced two new SkillsFuture initiatives.
The ﬁrst, Adapt and Grow, will help the workforce to adapt to the changing skills needs of industries.
The second, TechSkills Accelerator, is designed to provide training on ICT to young people and to further the skills of mid-career ICT professionals.
Mr Stephen Yee, Assistant Executive Director and Senior Director of Training, Singapore National Employers Federation, said from the Singapore perspective, the ILO report helps validate a lot of the things that the country is doing on the policy front, especially in relation to reskilling and skills upgrades.
He also urged employers to move quickly in this regard.
“Let us not wait. We will need a while to map out a strategy, to work with people to transform the organisation and to transform ourselves,” he said.
“Whether we like it or not, we have to take a look at this and act now.”
Echoing this, Mr Rynhart from ILO, said stories about technology “upending jobs” have been around since Henry Ford’s time, probably even earlier, but the main difference now is the accelerated pace of change.
According to the ILO report, 56-57 per cent of jobs across the region are automatable, putting wage workers at high risk. In Singapore, the percentage of jobs at risk is 37 per cent.
Mr Rynhart said: “This is a clarion call. There is a need to start a conversation at the national level because the implications are enormous.”