Rise of the machines isn’t the end for manual labour


Picture of Sascha Stowasser
Sascha Stowasser

Sascha Stowasser is Director of the Düsseldorf-based Institute for Applied Work Science (IFAA) and Professor at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT)

The rapid pace of digitalisation will have a dramatic impact on the world of work. A popular view is that the advance of digitalisation, automation and “Industry 4.0” doesn’t augur well for low-skilled workers in European industry, with some reports forecasting a massive contraction in the job market for low-skilled workers. According to an extremely popular 2013 study by Carl Frey and Michael Osborne, almost half of all employees in the United States could be replaced by computerised systems over the next two decades. A study presented at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos this year stated that digitalisation and automation will lead to a net loss of five million jobs in industrialised nations by 2020.

But this isn’t realistic. It would be ill-advised to deal in nightmare scenarios of unemployment in the thousands or millions. We still can’t confidently say whether and where jobs will be lost. In any case, no company, especially a small or medium-sized enterprise, is in a position to digitalise everything overnight, either commercially
or organisationally. There won’t be wide-scale technological unemployment or factories and offices devoid of people. One survey of almost 500 companies from the metal and electrical industry, carried out for the Institute for Applied Work Science (IFAA), found that fewer than one in five companies have initiated any plans or projects for implementing digital ideas. Industry 4.0 is yet to make its presence felt across all companies, and this will remain the case for years.

The potential offered by automation for professions and workplaces is, typically, overestimated. The implementation of new technologies often fails to take sufficient account of social, legal and ethical barriers. And no conclusions can be drawn with regard to the effect on the workforce as a whole. Rather than eliminating jobs, new technologies often change the nature of work. Employees are freed up to focus on activities that can’t be automated. For example, having previously centred on precision craftsmanship, the profession of watchmaking is now evolving to encompass the programming of digital models for 3D watch printing. The result is a vast increase in creative freedom.

Just as with previous technological evolutions, some roles will be eliminated. When diesel and electric locomotives came along, steam boilers – and stokers – were no longer needed. But new professions and opportunities emerge. We will need app programmers and 3D modellers. Vehicles will increasingly have electronic control systems, requiring engineers specialised in this field.

The integration of refugees can be made easier by the use of data glasses that explain work processes in various languages and media formats

But the advance of digital technologies doesn’t mean the only jobs remaining will be ones requiring a high degree of technical expertise. Creativity won’t be the only thing occupying the employees of the future, although the proportion of routine tasks performed by employees will decline. Some routine activities can be eliminated from simple work, thereby enabling low-skilled workers to increase their share of value added. This will help to make work productive and competitive across different levels of expertise, thereby keeping this work in Europe.

Digitalisation is expected to have another positive effect. Low-skilled workers, particularly those who are less physically able, can increasingly be positively integrated into the workforce with the help of robot-assisted work systems and body suits – “exoskeletons”. These technologies lower the physical impact of ergonomically-unfavourable movements on the assembly line, reduce the strain posed by heavy weights, and lead to improved quality thanks to precision process control.
It’s also conceivable that low-skilled workers will be integrated into the labour market to a greater extent as a result of digital assistance systems – tablets, smartphones, data glasses, networked monitors, and so on. Employees could be deployed more flexibly and in more varied roles as they will receive the necessary information on-site and in real time. This can happen quicker and at shorter notice, as assistance systems will massively expand the options for on-the-job training, with information provided intuitively. Like today’s smartphones, the use of assistance systems must be simple and user-friendly. This includes multimedia information with extensive possibilities, including choices of languages, images, and video sequences. Even the integration of refugees can be made easier by the use of data glasses that explain work processes in various languages and media formats.

With digital technologies evolving at a considerable pace, low-skilled workers will have to develop a strong willingness to learn and adapt. Needs-orientated qualification measures, such as for operating equipment, can help support employees. The relevant learning content for digitalisation can still only be described in general terms, which makes it necessary to permanently compare training content with the relevant requirements while also focusing on the interplay between everyone in the production process.

The advance of digital technologies doesn’t mean the only jobs remaining will be ones requiring a high degree of technical expertise

Digitalisation offers a number of attractive opportunities. It means greater flexibility for employees, more demanding tasks, the provision of tailored information and relief from monotonous routine work. As well as the increased availability of information, digitalisation will improve companies’ coordination and communication processes. We will need many highly-qualified employees to get Industry 4.0 and digitalisation on the road, and low-skilled workers will remain in demand. But for all this optimism, there is a risk. Digitalisation could go too far if we end up shaping the work of the future so that we humans become mere appendages of intelligent digital systems and machines. To counter this, we need a fundamental debate about morality and ethics – one that takes into account not only the numerous benefits
of digitalisation, but also occupational safety.

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