Digital technology has made it possible for firms to develop innovative business models that harness real-time data to lower costs and improve efficiency. Customers can have access to higher-quality products and services, and companies can boost growth and create jobs. This means a healthy economy and rising living standards.
The recent Made Smarter Review argued that Britain can and should become a world leader in industrial digital technologies, converging breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, robotics, the internet of things and big data. This is one of the primary objectives of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).
The review suggested that embracing the 4IR could boost growth in UK manufacturing by £455 billion over the next decade, creating a net gain of at least 175,000 jobs and a reduction in CO2 emissions by 4.5 per cent. This should focus minds in Whitehall and in businesses around the country.
Key to achieving the ambitions of the industry leaders, who led the Made Smarter Review, will be ensuring Britain has a workforce that is fit for the future, equipped with the right skills to harness the opportunities of industrial digitisation.
Britain has a widely recognised shortage of workers educated in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), the skills needed to build this new era of British industrial success. In our efforts to close this gap, Britain starts from a position of strength, with world-class universities, a strong base of scientific research and an additional 1.8 million children in good or outstanding schools since 2010.
Solving this challenge will be vital if Britain is to make the most of the 4IR and the government clearly recognises this. By delivering a comprehensive overhaul of the UK’s technical education system, the prime minister has promised to deliver a skills revolution for post-Brexit Britain.
Acknowledging that nearly half of all businesses report a shortage of STEM skills as a serious concern, the government is investing £500 million a year into a new system of T levels, developed in collaboration with industry experts, to give young people a clear and straightforward path into STEM careers.
Moving forward, we must continue to roll out reforms to our education system at all stages of life so children develop the right skills for the future, so the working-age population is encouraged to continuously upskill throughout their working lives and so adults affected by automation are given opportunities to retrain and go back to work.
That said, growing the STEM workforce must not be done at the expense of creativity, social skills and collaborative problem-solving, the kind of abilities that are highly automation resistant and will be valued by British firms for decades to come. Scientists and engineers may be needed to build this new economy, but we must avoid creating skills gaps in other areas.
This is not just about coding for kids. It’s about preparing everyone, whatever their age, for a more digital, more automated world. It’s about combining the capabilities of people and machines, automating repetitive administrative tasks and freeing human workers to add value in other ways.
This revolution has huge potential to boost economic growth and raise living standards, but if we are to make a success of it, and if the British people are to view it as an opportunity and not a threat, we need to get serious about education and skills.