Since the Hannover trade fair for industrial technology in spring 2014, Industry 4.0 has become Germany’s synonym for a new industrial revolution based on digitalisation, automation, networking and flexible production processes.

Control and problem-solving competences are in demand

Industry 4.0 holds out a prospect of a surge in productivity which will bring a new wave of rationalisation in its wake. Vision of a factory (almost) devoid of human beings is looming ever closer. Many high-tech companies have already started making it a reality. As yet, however, specifics of what Industry 4.0 really means cannot be foreseen with accuracy. But past experience shows that no inevitable consequences for vocational education and training (VET) need be assumed.

It has already been some years since the first automatic manufacturing facilities were installed. These are controlled and maintained by skilled workers who completed initial VET in an era when Industry 4.0 was unheard of. Industry 4.0 imposes continuous change on the work tasks that make up production processes, ranging from process planning and preparation to construction and adaptation of production facilities, and from process surveillance and safety to necessary support services. So what are the implications for VET?

Generally, importance of skills in information technology (IT) is increasing. Control and problem-solving competences are in demand. Current occupational profiles in metalworking and electrical occupations, particularly those of mechatronics fitter and production technologist, have gone some way towards reflecting this change. They provide common minimum standards and are designed to be technology-neutral, giving companies and vocational schools scope to adapt them to current needs. But Industry 4.0 also calls for a new quality of IT know-how. Accomplishing this would involve modernising countless occupations and probably creating some new ones.

Upgrading to VET 4.0

Beyond updating training regulations, the question of VET’s future status within industry arises. In automated processes, vocational learning needs to be structured differently. Errors and stoppages pose too many risks. More learning must therefore be organised in separate spaces, such as virtual learning environments.

Even today, companies are cooperating more with the higher education sector to train the next generation of skilled workers. But VET must not leave this to higher education establishments alone. On the contrary, it must develop its own concepts for VET 4.0. These include new partnerships between learning venues and hybrid qualification routes in collaboration with higher education establishments.

The Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training (BIBB) will engage in dialogue with experts from vocational practice and research and draw up proposals on how requirements can be satisfied in VET. Enabling employees to gain qualifications must be integrated into implementation of Industry 4.0 from the very start. For it is also important to shape the world of work to meet human needs.

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