THE first industrial revolution introduced mechanisation using water and steam power.
The second one saw the start of mass production and assembly lines using electricity. And the third, computers and automation.
We are now in the fourth industrial revolution, Industry 4.0, which focuses on smart and autonomous systems using data and machine learning.
Connected and smart computers are making decisions without human involvement. Cyber-physical systems, Internet of Things, robotics and artificial intelligence are making factories and offices smarter, more efficient and productive, ultimately replacing humans.
The previous revolutions displaced mainly blue-collar workers but new jobs and professions were created apace to employ them.
However, with Industry 4.0, white collar workers – professionals, managers, executives, and technicians (PMETs) are increasingly being displaced by smart systems.
Are new jobs and professions being created fast enough to keep pace with such displacement?
Lifelong learning, upskilling, and reskilling are the new mantras of organisations and governments as they grapple with this new reality for employment.
Yet, to what extent can they provide employment quick enough for PMETs increasingly displaced by Industry 4.0 and fresh graduates entering the workforce?
What took decades for previous industrial revolutions to disrupt the workplace and workforce is happening in just a few years in Industry 4.0.
Can a middle-aged PMET displaced by Industry 4.0 be reskilled or upskilled sufficiently for a position which pays as well as his previous job?
Can his new salary cover the debts, provide for his family and the lifestyle they enjoyed? And when he competes with a fresh graduate for a job, who would the company choose?
The raison d’être for any business or company is to make money for its owner or shareholders. Which business or company would not want Industry 4.0 to replace the cost and expense of employing a human with a smart system which works better and is cheaper overall?
Perhaps it is time to look at increasing and widening the social welfare net for all Malaysians as more people become unemployed or unemployable for longer periods, with increasing mismatch between the jobs and professions available, both old and new, and the new skills to fill them.
Like any revolution, Industry 4.0 brings a social cost to the society it revolutionises.
CHEW KOK LIANG