The future world of vocational training

Publish Date

14 JUN 2019


Kai Beckmann


The digital transformation is vigorously shaking up well-established occupations. Not least, the importance of IT expertise as well as communication, interdisciplinary collaboration and independent responsibility is growing.

The digital transformation is vigorously shaking up well-established occupations. Not least, the importance of IT expertise as well as communication, interdisciplinary collaboration and independent responsibility is growing. Companies and vocational schools are responding and adapting vocational training to the requirements of the new world of work. The digital transformation also began permeating vocational training at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany long ago. 

Still disputable is how many jobs will actually be lost and how many new ones will be created. Much clearer today is what will happen between these two extremes: many existing occupations will fundamentally change in the course of digitalization – or are already doing so today.

For instance, roofers are increasingly using drones to identify roof damage more easily. For nearly one year now, young people can train to become a management assistant for e-commerce and not just for retail sales. And programmers today no longer write software just for home computers, but also for vacuum cleaners and industrial machines.

The fact that occupations change over time is of course not a new phenomenon. What is new, however, is the speed at which occupations are changing. Just think of the occupation of a car mechanic, which has always had to keep up with innovations in the automotive sector yet has changed most radically in recent years. Today, car mechanics are called automotive mechatronic technicians and work in shops equipped with computers and electronic test systems. Electromobility and autonomous driving are also in the process of further transforming the occupation significantly. This development is an example that stands for countless other vocations.

Digital training

The digital transformation is not making an exception for the chemical industry. Increasingly complex digital production units are advancing into factories, demanding entirely new competencies. Today, machines are more often software-based and are operated via a touchscreen or even run autonomously, steered by artificial intelligence.

Back in 2017, the German Federation of Chemical Employers’ Associations (BAVC), of which I am President, and the German Mining, Chemical and Energy Industrial Union (IG BCE) therefore decided in a close spirit of social partnership to realize the elective qualification known as “Digitalization and networked production” for the occupation of chemical technician. The new elective qualification, which took effect in summer 2018, now allocates more time to impart digital skills to chemical technicians during their vocational training.

At Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, the use of digital technologies is now a firm element of vocational training. For instance, two years ago we started giving all our apprentices – whether chemical, biology laboratory or mechatronics technicians – their own convertible notebook. Augmented and virtual reality glasses are already in use in our vocational training programs. Yet we are proceeding with circumspection here and are not deploying new technologies just because they are new.

More than a matter of technology

However the future world of work consists of far more than the use of digital devices. Apart from professional and technical competencies, the new world of work also calls for the ability to apply new methods as well as personal qualities. Acquiring or teaching these presents the far greater challenge. In the course of the digital transformation, the importance of communication skills, interdisciplinary cooperation as well as the ability to work independently has increased at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany.

For instance, in the age of the Smart Factory, the ability to communicate with IT experts has become considerably more important. If, for example, a disruption occurs in a production unit, then a chemical technician must be able to recognize this and explain it to the IT expert. This doesn’t mean that we are now training our chemical technicians at EMD Electronics to become programmers. Instead, it’s about understanding the logic behind algorithms and be able to interpret the data. In order to promote the interdisciplinary competencies of our apprentices, during their vocational training with us they change departments every three months.

At Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, we’ve also developed effective tools to further the independent responsibility of our apprentices. One of them is the so-called learning journey. In contrast to the past, we no longer give our apprentices instructions on how to perform every single step of their work. Instead, we define work objectives for each stop along the learning journey, equip our apprentices with all the tools they need, and give them the names of the relevant contacts. How the apprentices ultimately achieve the objective is their decision. Independence and independent responsibility are called for. The role of vocational training instructors has also changed as a result. They no longer act as teachers, but rather as coaches and mentors.

Let’s actively shape occupations

If we want to keep pace with and actively shape the digital transformation, then we have to continuously adapt occupations and the corresponding vocational training programs. Therefore, we should view occupations as dynamic competency profiles that constantly need to be adapted to the requirements of the new world of work. This is the only way that we can offer employees attractive occupations and remain competitive in the long term. After all, we should always remember one thing: People should shape the digital transformation, and not vice versa. 

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