Training the workforce of Industry 4.0

By Dr. Larry Rosia. 

Full disclosure: I’m a lifelong academic. I’ve been immersed in the world of education and training for more than 35 years — as an instructor, program chair, dean, and now president and CEO of one of Canada’s most dynamic polytechnic institutions. But don’t hold that against me just yet. I’m actually here to plead industry’s case for a better, more responsive, and more innovative training sector.

There is no doubt higher education is one of the most important ingredients in the economic chain. Human capital is the universal input for all businesses, and we in polytechnics, community colleges, and universities are responsible for ensuring the quality of those inputs. Admittedly, however, academia often forgets that you — manufacturers and employers — are our customers, our clients. And, sometimes, we haven’t been the best suppliers.

That’s not because we’re bad at what we do. To the contrary, I’d argue Canada has one of the strongest post-secondary systems in the world. In fact, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s 2016 benchmarking report, Canada again leads the globe in adults aged 25-64 who have completed tertiary education.

That’s not to say everything is sunshine and rainbows. The World Economic Forum ranks Canada 19th in higher education and training, and a sluggish 24th in overall innovation. The nagging narrative of ‘jobs without people and people without jobs’ is a vivid illustration of the disconnect that persists — a disconnect that also occurs between higher education and industry.

Nobina Robinson, the head of Polytechnics Canada, a national policy advocacy association of Canada’s leading polytechnics, recently wrote the reason for this is straightforward: “We are stuck with a hierarchical understanding of education. We believe certain types of education have prestige and earning power, while thinking other types should be left to the weaker students even though they fill an obvious need.”

I don’t think many in the private sector would disagree — a resetting of perception to reality when it comes to education is needed. And industry is, and should be, leading the call for a fundamental overhaul as to how we prepare students for the workforce.

Robert Hardt, president and CEO of Siemens Canada, has long talked about Industry 4.0 — the fourth Industrial Revolution, and a paradigm shift from labour-intensive processes to a system supported by advanced technology, big data, and intelligent production design. The road to future competitiveness, he argues, is paved with digitalization, automation, and ‘the interconnectedness of things.’

The early stages of this metamorphosis have already begun, and we need to get ahead of it. True opportunity belongs to those that do not only respond to market demand, but anticipate it; and Canada has a short window to stake its claim on the future of industrial excellence.

In the last issue of Prairie Manufacturer Magazine, we heard from Terry Bergan, the president and CEO of Saskatoon-based International Road Dynamics, on how autonomous vehicles are revolutionizing the transportation of goods and people, and the business opportunities created as a result. It is an industry, though, in its infancy — and there are many others of equal bearing, or even related consequence, that do not yet exist. For instance, if autonomous vehicles lead to a drastic reduction in the number of accidents causing death, the supply of natural organ donations for transplant could be instantaneously cut back by 70 per cent. How will we innovate a solution?

If Canada is going to seize on these opportunities and navigate these challenges, where will the talent come from to make it happen? We need to train for the skills of tomorrow — not necessarily just for the jobs of today. Here’s what it will take:

Courage and political will

Becoming a leader in next-generation education will require serious investment on the part of government and business. We need to make the deliberate decision to forge our way to the forefront of the global economy, with a high-value labour pool, knowing the return may be years in the making. There are inherent risks to that approach, yes, but there are larger risks to maintaining the status quo.

World-class equipment and facilities

We need to train on leading-edge equipment, in state-of-the-art facilities designed with flexible spaces that can be reconfigured in minutes, and via interactive, distance learning technologies, such as virtual reality (reducing our physical footprint and the costs associated). This will help pull Canadian companies towards where the market is heading, and — paired with new mentorship and incubation supports — will stimulate a wave of new businesses and commercialization.

The Geographic Information Science (GIS) Lab at SaskPolytech’s Prince Albert Campus is a small, albeit effective, model for what these flagship facilities can look like. The lab is the first in the province to use modern, Cat 6 wiring to a top-tier Cisco network switch, enabling each of the 18 workstations to quickly communicate at a full gigabit each. The 10-gigabit fibre optic connection to the main server room also allows students to fully utilize 60 terabytes of high-performance storage. This facility has helped the college become a leader in using unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, for watershed and shoreline mapping.

A rethinking of credentials

It’s time to customize curriculum pathways, and put a greater emphasis on blended learning. Perhaps we should consider doing away with the traditional diploma and degree altogether. Do employers trust credentials, or are they looking for the skill sets those credentials bring? No two students — or businesses, for that matter — are the same, so why do we treat credentialing programs the same way?

I remember sitting beside a student at a SaskPolytech function a few months ago, who was enrolled in our environmental technology program. He also had a law degree to his name.

“What compelled you to go from being a lawyer back to school for environmental technology?” I wondered aloud.

As it turns out, there is a certain high-demand mineral that can be extracted from various sources in outer space — the next frontier, he believes, in mining exploration. He wants his firm to be the first to specialize in the laws and regulations that are sure to come.

That is the type of thinking — and the type of student — we need to do a better job supporting.

Nobina Robinson is right: Before we can do anything else, we must first modernize how the public values trade school and applied learning in comparison to university undergraduate education or graduate school.

Strengthen collaboration

Research has shown that technologists and technicians comprise more of the workforce performing research and development in Canadian companies than master’s or doctoral students. Earning potential between the different levels of education is at par in many industries, if not slanted more favourably to vocational or technical graduates. Let’s recognize we’re all in this together.

That starts with greater collaboration between parts of our education and training system. Here in Saskatchewan, with a population of 1.15 million, we have two universities, four federated colleges, six affiliated colleges, one polytechnic, four institutions dedicated to Indigenous and northern education, eight regional colleges, and dozens of career colleges and private training bodies. We need to remember we are not competing with each other (and operate in that manner). We are working to provide you, businesses, with the skills you need, and will need, to grow.

In manufacturing, you know one of the best sources of innovation is your own supplier. And, as a taxpayer, post-secondary education is the largest public investment you make in innovation. Send us the right signals through involvement in program advisory committees, partnering in applied research, offering work integrated learning (WIL) opportunities, donating equipment, and sharing industry expertise by becoming part-time faculty or instructors.

Start expecting and demanding more for your money; and — like any other supplier — it will be up to us to deliver you solutions.

Dr. Larry Rosia is the president and CEO of Saskatchewan Polytechnic, which serves 27,000 students at four campuses across the province.