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How Scotland is building a future-proof workforce

31 Jan 2024 • 6 minute read

Scotland is investing in talent via digital initiatives and developing robotics capabilities for new industrial challenges.

In Scotland, action is being taken to address digital skills shortfalls and optimise the domestic workforce.

Skills Development Scotland (SDS) is a key initiative that seeks to equip more people with the capabilities they need for Industry 5.0. Industry 5.0 refers to robot and smart machines working alongside people with added resilience and sustainability goals included. 

SDS also aims to build a new generation of talent through administering apprenticeships and digital training programmes, alongside collaborations with educational institutions. 

“Every industry has some digital requirement. What we are seeing is a lot of industries changing,” says Claire Gillespie, digital technologies sector skills manager for Scotland at SDS. “If you look at the energy sector, for example, with the whole transition to clean energy, we are seeing a huge demand for data skills and Artificial Intelligence (AI).”

Initially, SDS was largely focused on the tech sector. Recent changes have seen the group expand to address the digital skills demands of all industries and offer one-on-one support for workers.

At the same time, businesses are not always certain about the types of digital skills required. While more businesses are aware of the significant impact of AI, the precise applications are not yet fully understood.

Identifying skills requirements for Scottish industries

A skilled workforce continues to be vital in many industries, with an added technical element. In Scotland, technology is already being used to address industry issues – but more research is required.
 
“There is a big cluster of aerospace companies down in Ayrshire. Some of those are just introducing AI and trying to understand it, but they don’t know [how it will be used],” adds Alastair Gillen, growth, and inward investment manager at SDS. “What they do know is there is going to be a gap in their existing workforce because all the processes they currently have are developing all the time. 
 
“Some of the old-school engineering processes will always be there and remain the bedrock of everything that they do – but there are going to be a lot of changes.”
 
To train and match potential employees with job vacancies, SDS uses a skills planning model to analyse employer demands. This is then cross-referenced against regional and sectoral investment plans. The strategy focuses on aligning an individual's existing experience with the digital skills to meet the needs of specific industries. 
 
“We help companies identify and diagnose where the gaps are, then guide them to the delivery of training or whatever may be needed,” adds Gillen. “We will do the diagnostic. But then we will bring in the experts that can provide the necessary support.”

An upskilling action plan for the digital economy

A central pillar of the work of SDS is set out in its flagship report, titled the Digital Economy Skills Action Plan 2023–2028. For clarity, SDS proposed definitions of the different levels of digital skills. These range from basic requirements to highly specialised areas such as cybersecurity and software engineering.

Another initiative is the Digital Economy Skills Group. It brings together leaders from the public and private sectors to identify existing and anticipated skills gaps. 
 
“We rely heavily on our evidence base to gather insight and build a picture for investors coming into Scotland about what talent looks like,” adds MacLean. “Also, there is the availability of talent coming down the track [to consider]. This could be people from colleges and universities, as well as those changing jobs or retiring.”
 
Along with organisations such as the Data Lab, SDS is also working to improve digital inclusion throughout Scotland. Traditionally, tech has been a male-dominated sector. However, there are signs of change. Women now hold approximately 30% of national tech jobs in Scotland.

The rise of the robot workforce 

Robotics is set to be essential for many industries. Logistics, heavy manufacturing, and the aerospace industry are already using robotics in Scotland. As technology advances, applications are anticipated to expand further, especially amid a global labour shortage. 
 
An essential institution in robotics development in Scotland is the National Robotarium at Herriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. Despite only being established in 2022, the institution has made substantial progress in creating advanced automation technology for many industries.

In trials, robots are helping healthcare workers, performing cleaning and porter chores in hospitals. However, the biggest projects at the Robotarium are developing robotics for construction and agriculture. If all projects in the ScotWind and Integrated oil and gas (INTOG) leasing phases progress as planned, it would add 29.6 gigawatts of wind energy. Robots may soon be used to manufacture turbines, as well as examine and maintain offshore wind assets.

Human workers and robotics: finding the balance

There is a perception that increased automation comes at the expense of human labour. The SDS has been working with the National Robotarium to tackle this challenge, creating strategies to prevent technology from replacing workers. 
 
However, while robots will fulfil a growing number of duties, their introduction can also create jobs. For example, human workers will most likely repair any problems with robots. 

The Robotarium's outreach team visits industries to explore further areas for development, alongside schools to educate students about potential careers. Miller anticipates that more robotics training programmes will begin soon.
 
In addition, the Robotarium is heavily involved in projects studying interactions between humans and robots. These cover everything from voice recognition to ethics. 
 
Another significant subject is investigating how robots respond to nuanced social cues that differ across cultures, alongside language training. This creates additional opportunities for a domestic workforce more familiar with local customs than automated systems. 

A supportive network for digital and tech skills

Scotland has many strengths in the digital skills and expertise required for robotics and AI, with universities playing a crucial role. Most Scottish universities are running robotics courses. Nine colleges around Scotland also have robotic workshops for the education of businesses. 
 
Legislation can take a while to catch up with new technology. However, in Scotland, robotics companies can contribute to policy development. The result is that new laws can be developed and passed more quickly than in other parts of the world. 

Miller says that working in robotics in Scotland is beneficial for a variety of reasons. “It’s the academic network, it’s the further education network, it’s the network of centres like the National Robotarium,” he explains. “Then there is the support, agility and speed of government decision-making.” 
 
The range of initiatives and expertise available in Scotland are positioning the country as a leading international robotics hub. All of this is backed up by a skilled workforce. 
 
“The Scottish have that heritage of engineering and technology – and also, they aren’t reticent to get their hands dirty and get on with it,” adds Miller. “These are things that put us in good stead for the future.”

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