New work world USB stick instead of plane

Process knowledge gains in importance over product knowledge: a trainee checks measured data at the control centre of a chemical plant.
Process knowledge gains in importance over product knowledge: a trainee checks measured data at the control centre of a chemical plant. | Photo (detail): © picture alliance/Christian Hager/dpa

The progressive digitization of work and production calls for new paths in dual education. Curricula should be updated and additional qualifications offered for trainees.

A workbench, maybe an automated saw and a lot of sawdust: that’s how most people imagine the working environment of a carpenter. He is planing, filing and sawing, to make, for example, a cabinet. But for Marius Baschien, an apprentice carpenter in North Rhine-Westphalia, the working day starts quite differently: he sits at a white table in front of a PC. The lesson plan for today is that he design a longboard – a skateboard. The computer simulates for him the properties of materials or stores sectional drawings in machine-compatible files.

Mr Baschien is part of the training project “digiTS”, which aims to tackle the challenges of Industry 4.0 for dual vocational training in Germany. Most training occupations are taught in Germany through the dual system: training takes place in parallel at the company and at the vocational school so that apprentices gain both practical and theoretical knowledge. In the digiTS project all interest groups of the dual joiner training are represented: the inter-company training workshop, the carpentry guild, the vocational college and, of course, the companies. A webcast on, the instructor portal of the Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training (BIBB), shows how the young people get to know the entire digital process chain from the first drafts to the finished longboard. For example, the data from their sectional drawings in the carpentry shop are transferred to the shaper, which transfers the veneer patterns to the laser cutter via vector graphics, while the bumper that is so important for a longboard comes from the 3D printer. Relatively little sawdust falls to the ground – only if the young people rework parts by hand.

Factory worker becomes process architect

The example shows that work processes, and also sales strategies and services, are increasingly being mastered via network-supported infrastructures. Process knowledge is becoming more important than product knowledge. The fact that skilled workers can adapt to this will be particularly important for companies in the future. Dr Monika Hackel, Head of the Structure and Order of Vocational Training Department at the BIBB, sees a need for action: “Currently, I observe a high degree of dynamic change in the work world, which can be traced to socio-political demands. Digitization enhances this dynamic. The VET task is to design new solutions to meet these developments.”

An estimated 20 billion devices and machines are already networked via the Internet; by 2030 it will be around half a trillion. “The factory worker, who today works on a conveyor belt, will in future become the architect of a production process that networks people and machines”, explained futurologist Ayad Al-Ani of the Berlin Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society in early 2018 in an interview with the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung. “The organization of work through people and algorithms beyond the hierarchy requires skills that will be both social and technical. You don’t have to know everything in detail; you have to orchestrate and use it.”

Curricula are not always up to speed

For this to happen, a lot has to be done. A pilot project that the BIBB carried out together with the Volkswagen Academy in the automotive industry showed, for example, that the mechatronics profession is undergoing massive changes because of new production processes. As mechanical work becomes less important, other skills become more important: trainees must be able to learn to read digital schematics and 3D models, and to detect and troubleshoot production on displays and screen surfaces. In training practice, this has so far received only limited attention. The proportion of metal technology lessons is disproportionately high in the syllabus, amounting to 18 weekly lessons, while highly demanded qualifications such as network technology are covered in just four weeks. A preliminary conclusion of the investigation: in order to deal with the reality of the work world in the case of the mechatronic technician, either an additional qualified occupation in the field of maintenance must be created, the existing company training programme must be rebuilt, or there should be at least the opportunity to gain an additional qualification.

In 2018 the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi) responded to these new challenges. At the start of the new training year, it modernized the training regulations of 24 professions, including mechatronics technician, adapting them to the latest technological developments. With the “businessman in e-commerce” it also created a new qualified occupation. “Vocational training has often proved its flexibility and adaptability in the past”, said the BIBB President Esser. “I’m confident that this will also be so in the face of the current challenges.”