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Robots are taking over factories, with automation reaching even as far as individual unit manufacturing. Plenty of new opportunities are taking form for industry in the era of digital integration. Skeptics fear that human jobs could fall by the wayside. Volkswagen does not think much of doom and gloom attitudes, and is developing concepts for tomorrow's employment scene. The skilled worker of the future will have different tasks, and how work is organized is also changing, explains Olaf Katzer, Director of Career Family Development International at the Volkswagen Group Academy. This is the Volkswagen group's umbrella organization for professional development and qualification.

Greater qualifications for skilled workers

“It's true that simple tasks will disappear in the factory of the future,” says Katzer. “In ten or fifteen years hardly anyone will be wanting to do packaging or assembly work.” The demographic transformation is also having its effect, with fewer workers entering the workforce.

That fact alone raises the value of each individual employee for a company. Industry 4.0 adds an even more important aspect: Tomorrow's skilled workers will be significantly more qualified. They will have to be, if they are to manage the complexity of digital industry. “The times when expert knowledge belonged to just a few specialists are past,” says Katzer. “Knowledge must be available to everyone, ideally right where it is needed.” This means instructional materials right at the plant – perhaps with operating instructions, or video tutorials for machine maintenance.

There is also expertise that employees can access at any time from a cloud using their tablet, smartphone or data glasses. Of course, experience sharing must not receive short shrift, if knowledge is to become true competency: Experienced experts in the company should support younger colleagues, or those from different backgrounds, through systematic knowledge sharing such as Volkswagen already practices today.

New work organization, new collaboration

“For all these approaches to work, companies need to promote and expect self-directed working and learning from their people,” says Katzer. “Instead of receiving standardized instruction, skilled workers should autonomously seek out the expertise they need for their work.” For Millennials this will be a natural fit, while some of their older peers might feel intimidated. That is why the Volkswagen Group Academy gets different employee groups acquainted with this new way of working in a variety of ways. “You cannot put workers with robots and expect them to work together without any resistance.” Listening and conversing are key. When you succeed, digitization should be the source of a new form of sovereignty in factories. Including when it comes to cooperation.

For example, if there is a malfunction in a complex and networked system, the problem often cannot be resolved alone. Instead, at Volkswagen interdisciplinary teams are intended to come together autonomously and then document their solution steps for the next employees. “What we're talking about are massive changes in work organization,” stresses Katzer.

These are necessary. Because Industry 4.0 means above all that the customer's individual order determines the entire manufacturing process. This impacts resource allocation as well as processing times.

People at the heart of digital industry

It is not just new technologies that are needed for the digital transformation to successfully lead to integrated industry. For the Volkswagen Group Academy, engineering, work organization and qualification are factors with equal weight in determining the success of digitization. Perhaps not everyone agrees. But it is clear that individual skilled workers in the digital age will be more valuable than ever.