The UK economy needs to improve its productivity in order to remain internationally competitive. This can be achieved through increased automation and through the deployment of next-generation RAS technologies. Such a transformation cannot take place without a substantial increase in the number of employees who understand the capabilities of such systems, how to deploy them, and how to integrate them alongside human workers.
However, improving RAS skills and education faces significant major challenges, including:
- A general shortage of workers with STEM skills. A 2016 review of future economic growth in the UK, by the The ScaleUp Institute, highlighted the “consistent, ongoing demand … [of UK companies] … for STEM skills across all parts of the country and most industry sectors”. The report concluded that “access to people with the right skills was the biggest barrier preventing their growth”.
- A lack of understanding about the future of work. The pace of change unleashed by digitalisation means that around two/thirds of children in primary school today will work in jobs which do not exist yet, many of which will involve RAS technologies.
- Poor provision of schools’ education relevant to RAS careers. The Royal Society’s 2017 report, “After the Reboot”, concluded that “computing education across the UK is patchy and fragile”, and that “a majority of teachers …[are] … teaching an unfamiliar school subject without adequate support”. There is a need both to rethink the curriculum, to educate the educators, and to provide better training in areas such as mechatronics alongside coding.
- A lack of diversity and inclusion in STEM/RAS opportunities. The proportion of women in UK engineering is very low (8%), and compares unfavourably with other advanced economies. Evidence suggests that girls are put off STEM careers from an early age but that interventions throughout the school years can make a difference, and that robotics may be an effective way to get children interested in engineering. Other diversity challenges also need to be addressed.
- A critical need for reskilling across the lifespan. 2/3rds of the workforce that is required for 2030 has already left full-time education. This points to a critical role for in-work training and lifelong learning in addressing the skills challenge.
These are difficult and large-scale challenges that will only be addressed by concerted action across the UK education sector with support from government, public, and commercial stakeholders.
UK universities have a critical role to play, and the UK-RAS Network, as the UK’s leading body for researchers in RAS, can act as a significant catalyst for positive change. The proposed SERAS task group would work to better understand the challenges, and then to co-ordinate a sustainable program of curriculum development and skills training. Such a programme, for which future funded partnerships will be sought, would seek to resolve the RAS skills deficit through diverse pathways including new teaching resources and methodologies, improved professional training for educators, forging stronger ties between educators and employers, encouraging robotic “maker” activities, and public engagement and outreach activities that promote RAS careers.
SERAS’s UK-wide task group aims to directly address the skills gap in relation to RAS by:
(i) Analysing and understand the requirements for UK RAS training and education.
(ii) Surveying existing provision identifying gaps, opportunities, best practices.
(iii) Engaging across the education sector, and with the public and employers, about the challenges and opportunities to improve the UK skills base in RAS.
(iv) Scoping projects and developing new partnerships and collaborations that will create sustainable long-term interventions that can operate at scale, and across the lifespan, with due attention to diversity issues.
(v) Inspiring and demystifying RAS technologies and encouraging people from diverse backgrounds to explore RAS careers.
(vi) Influencing UK public policy on skills and education related to RAS.