Car chiefs ill-prepared for robotic age

Carmakers are failing to prepare their workers for the digital transformation expected to shake up the labour force in the coming years, a variety of experts say.
 A survey by Accenture found only 2 per cent of car executives “plan to significantly increase investment” in reskilling programmes, even though most acknowledge that workers require new skills to work with robotics, cloud computing and artificial intelligence.
 The study turns on its head the idea that workers are resistant to new technology out of fear their jobs will be replaced. Instead, two-thirds of employee respondents said “intelligent technologies will make their jobs simpler” and “encourage creativity and innovation”.
 “Employers see [digital transformation] coming, but they do little to prepare for it, whereas employees embrace it — they think it will make their lives easier,” said Gabriel Seibert, managing director at Accenture.
 The survey of more than 100car executives and 1,000 workers shows 84 per cent of executives agree that their company over the next three years will automate tasks and processes to a “large” or “very large” extent. Three-quarters said the industry would be “transformed” by intelligent technologies.
 A central takeaway of the report was that executives saw the problem but were not acting on it. Mr Seibert suggested executives looked at these challenges through a distant, administrative lens, whereas workers saw them in their daily tasks.
 “Many workers already know how to work with robots and they see that their job still exists. Often it is even enhanced,”Mr Seibert said. “That is why they have a more positive view . . . They know what they are doing, they see today how robots help them.”
 At Ford, for instance, intelligent robots from Kuka help to assemble vehicles in a way that is quicker, more efficient and safe — and they have also been programmed to make coffee.
 Making the right investments is important as the car industry responds to myriad threats. Last year the Ifo Institute, a Munich-based research centre, estimated that one in 10manufacturing jobs in Germany depend on the combustion engine. If this technology was banned, 426,000 jobs would beat risk.
 But executives could be doing more to secure those jobs. Epson, the Japanese robot-maker, found in its study that employers were “much better at getting new blood in when technological skills were needed, as opposed to repurposing potentially redundant employees”.
 Patrick Siebert, head of corporate transformation services for Germany at Alvarez & Marsal, a restructuring adviser, also found in a large study that executives and board directors can be slow to respond to digital threats because many have “old economy” ways of thinking. His key suggestion was for boards to transform their composition, to “structure qualification against the challenges ahead”.


 Survey suggests workers are keen to use robots on vehicle assembly lines


BY PATRICK MCGEE

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