Girl playing with robot.

Amidst the hype and fear-mongering over automation in the workplace, insightful business leaders are realizing something important: strategic digital upskilling can turn the robotic boogeyman into a workforce asset. With the right training and development, automation can help workers achieve more and engage more. As we stand on the brink of a new decade, automation-supported work forces promise to help us reach new heights of productivity and profitability.

Workforce automation has been on the horizon for years. You’ve heard the projections: Robots will make humans obsolete. Work forces will be decimated by new technology. Millions will lose their jobs. As we step into 2020, you may be wondering if this is the decade when the takeover happens.

The truth is that automation will change the way we live and work in 2020 and beyond. However, the change will be incremental and overall, positive, as Penn Foster CEO Frank Britt explained in his article, "The Real Impact of Automation.” To gracefully weather the change,companies will need to invest in workforce automation training for employees at all levels.

What is digital upskilling?

Digital upskilling is the process of bringing every employee up to date with the technology and automation solutions that impact their jobs.

The truth is that automation is no different from any other advance in technology. It could raise productivity growth by 0.8 to 1.4 percent annually, according to McKinsey projections. That is higher than the 0.4 percent growth we saw from the introduction of early robotics, but it’s not a revolution.

The idea that all or even most jobs can be automated to remove the need for human workers, is still a future concept. McKinsey found that less than 5 percent of jobs could be fully automated using modern and emerging technologies. Not exactly a revolution. If robots can’t fill our jobs, what can they do?

They can automate individual tasks, removing the repetitive and mechanical elements of people’s jobs. What’s left is creativity, problem solving, and caring, i.e. the tasks that human brains are most qualified to do.

Because most jobs can’t be completely automated, employees aren’t being replaced by automation, they’re working alongside it. To make the most of automation, employers must ensure that employees are prepared to work with technology. Digital upskilling is the best way to make this happen.

Essential skills for the automated future.

It’s not enough to teach employees to use specific software. Technology is always evolving and today’s essential tools will be obsolete in a matter of months. True automation skills development starts with building foundational skills that help employees keep up with technology changes as they occur.

Every employee should have these skills:

  • Basic math skills
  • Pattern recognition and trend analysis
  • Strategic thinking
  • Communication skills
  • Cognitive tools for decision making

While some of these don’t sound like digital skills, they all help employees interact with technology and operate in a fast-paced digital world. Your employees must be confident in these abilities before you introduce automation solutions, or your business won’t see the full benefits of the technology.

How do you know if employees have these capabilities? Some, like basic math skills, can be proven using a simple assessment. Others, like strategic thinking, are harder to measure.

You can start by asking employees where they feel they need to improve. Often, employees are aware of their weaknesses and are eager to access training or tools to strengthen those skills. If you’re concerned that employees won’t feel comfortable sharing their weaknesses, consider bringing in a third-party survey company. You can also ask managers and supervisors to identify areas for improvement among their direct reports.

Once you’ve gathered your data, look for patterns. Does your workforce as a whole have a weakness in specific skills? Can you spot areas for improvement in specific departments or groups of employees. If so, target your efforts there first.

After you’ve introduced digital upskilling solutions, monitor employee progress with regular assessments. Your training partner should be able to help you keep track of employee development progress.

Continuous workforce automation training.

Evolving technology means employees need continuous training and development to stay ahead of the curve. In short, automation training never stops. That’s actually a good thing, because continuous training keeps employees engaged with their jobs. It makes them feel valued and prepared. Most importantly, it helps them stay flexible, so they view the changes wrought by automation with curiosity and excitement rather than fear.

Start your workforce automation training program by giving your employees access to Penn Foster’s Career Readiness Bootcamp. This online, mobile-enabled program helps working learners build decision making capabilities, communication skills, and other foundational abilities to prepare them for the automated workplaces of the future.