Diversity or uniformity in the digitalised industry


In a recent study exploring digitalisation in the Swedish steel industry, researchers from the DigMa group explored how work and work requirements are undergoing change and being reshaped as a result.

As industry continues to adopt digitalisation in the production process, the role of the human worker is undergoing change in two ways; it alters how human labour is performed and at the same time it is driving a shift in the nature of the competences and skills that are required and sought by organisations seeking to fill roles in the newly digitalised production environment.

One major change is the transition from a focus on manual labour to intellectual labour. For example, heavy industries such as those processing metals were traditionally workplaces for a specific worker type; those with the bodily strength to undertake heavy lifting in noisy and dirty environments. The digitalisation of such industries means roles are now open to different body types with lower barriers to entry for those with a less muscular build. On the face of it therefore one might think such industries in the future could potentially become far more diverse places reflecting broader society.

This shift away from a strong physique is however countered by a shift towards an increased focus on the intellect of the worker. Workers best equipped to flourish in the digitalised workplace are required to display a blend of skills. Potential employees must offer a combination of interpersonal, language and technical skills alongside the ability to solve complex problems and handle the pressures presented by, for example, just-in-time production. Additionally, workers are required to display the ability to self-motivate and be interested in the technology itself.

Our study therefore highlights a new construct of post-digitalisation employee requirements where a new set of competences and skills (as highlighted above) are sought by employers. These requirements create new barriers for entrance to the labour force in such post-digitalised industries with many people who may previously have been candidates for employment now excluded. Our study of the Swedish steel industry is one such example of how such digital transformation has recast existing social structures.

The implications of barriers of inclusion and exclusion in working life are significant and it is important we continue to further our knowledge to better understand these developments. Digitalisation may ultimately lead to a scenario where the workforce once again becomes as uniform as was the case pre-digital. This time around however it will consist solely of people with a blend of inter-personal, language and technical skills and interests. This is potentially problematic as barriers to enter this workplace are increasingly high; the combination of skills sought are likely to mean only a relatively limited segment of society will be able to access such roles in the future.

It is therefore very important we fully appraise the implications for our society and communities. Here at DigMa we fully intend to continue our study into how job requirements are shifting and changing in other sectors of the labour market during 2020 and will continue to report on our findings.

Eva Lindell, PhD