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The future of factory jobs
PEOPLE are usually surprised when they find out that 49-year-old Azizul Syed is an assistant robotics engineer.
"Most would expect someone much younger - they are either supportive or sceptical," says Mr Azizul, who has worked for more than 20 years in German sensor manufacturing firm Pepperl+Fuchs. But he takes their expectations and assumptions in his stride. As an industry veteran, he has seen first-hand how the manufacturing landscape has transformed over the years.
It is reflected in his job evolution through the two decades; he started out as a technical assistant before being moved to engineering support, followed by calibration coordination, and then finally, robotics.
"Manufacturing used to be labour-intensive, but now it's tapping resources from machines. It's about machines interacting with humans," he says.
"The sector has morphed into something different now because of Industry 4.0."
Industry 4.0, or advanced manufacturing, combines machines with digital technologies such as data analytics and artificial intelligence to create what is known as a "smart factory". It is identified as a key driver of Singapore's future economic growth.
But the transition was no walk in the park, even with the company's efforts to send the staff for retraining, recalls Mr Azizul.
"I was apprehensive, to be honest. I've never done software development, and there I was, having to learn C++ and Java and other programming languages in a span of six months," he says.
"When you haven't been to school in more than 10 years, it takes time for us to absorb. I was struggling a bit."
After months of burning the midnight oil at home to get up to speed, he eventually got into the swing of things. Now, he is a core part of the robotics team, providing support in the field of operations, programming and troubleshooting robots in the various production departments.
While his move into robotics sounds like a fairytale ending, the same cannot be said for some of Mr Azizul's peers.
"Quite a number of them left the company as they were worried that they could not adapt to the new Industry 4.0," he says.
The state of manufacturing
Manufacturing was the ultimate comeback kid of 2017. Hit hard by the global economic downturn in 2015 and 2016, the sector floundered then, spilling red ink on the economic report card. Its resurgence last year as an economic growth driver, buoyed by a cyclical upturn in the major markets, took everyone by surprise.
Not only did it pull its own weight, the manufacturing sector - which makes up one fifth of the economy - even managed to lift Singapore's overall growth last year.
In 2017, manufacturing expanded by just over 10 per cent, powering Singapore's overall economic growth to 3.6 per cent.
This stunning turnaround was partly a result of rising global demand for semiconductors, as well as structural shifts towards the higher value-added space that have borne fruit.
Economists say that it is this move towards advanced manufacturing that has given the sector a new lease of life.
With enhanced technology capabilities and infrastructure, manufacturers are able to ride on global demand for items such as components for driverless cars and sensors for the Internet of Things (IoT).
No longer is it the spurned sister to the more glamorous services sector, which makes up two-thirds of the economy and includes the mighty financial services industry.
While manufacturing is now basking in the spotlight thanks to its recent stellar report card, things are still not so rosy on the employment front.
Chris Pace, director of construction, property and engineering at Randstad Singapore, says: "The number of job opportunities has decreased over the years as more companies are choosing to relocate their manufacturing plants overseas as a cost-control measure."
A slew of labour data seems to corroborate the trend of shedding manufacturing jobs.
In the latest Economic Survey of Singapore for Q1 2018, manufacturing employment declined for the 14th consecutive quarter, weighed down by weakness in the marine and offshore engineering segment.
Manufacturing's share of employment has also shrunk throughout the years - it employs only 13 per cent of the workforce in 2017, compared to about 20 per cent in 2008.
Patrick Tay, assistant secretary-general of the NTUC, says: "While employment levels in manufacturing have been declining, it is not a uniform contraction of employment levels across the manufacturing sector."
Over the course of last year, while the employment of transport equipment manufacturing has declined, the total number hired in the manufacturing of electronic, computer & optical products went up, he points out.
But even with some segments in manufacturing still hiring, workers are wary to join the industry after years of seeing it decline. As a result, employers are having a tough time trying to find fresh talent.
This has been the observation of Mun Kok Woh, managing director of automation solutions firm ASTech, and vice-chairman of Smart Automation Industry Group, Singapore Manufacturing Federation (SMF).
Just several decades ago, many students were "rushing to polytechnics for their engineering and manufacturing courses" as the demand for such jobs was high and the education system in Singapore supported these fields, he notes.
He was a product of such a system, he shares.
But with many large manufacturing firms moving out from Singapore to low-cost countries such as Thailand and Vietnam, the sector's prestige took a huge hit.
"Parents started to encourage their kids to study other courses like IT, finance, business… many parents do not want their kids to join the engineering and manufacturing fields due to fewer opportunities," he observes.
While manufacturing continues to transform from traditional, labour-reliant production models to today's higher-productivity, knowledge-intensive industries, the talent needed to power this shift has not quite kept up.
In fact, a jobs mismatch is emerging - menial assembly and production jobs are getting phased out, but there is not enough manpower with the required digital confidence and skills to accelerate the leap into Industry 4.0.
The manpower shortage is not helped by strongly-held perceptions that humans will eventually be replaced by robots on the production line, rendering manufacturing jobs redundant.
But industry watchers insist that people will be working alongside robots instead.
Mr Tay envisions that manual and routine functions will be undertaken by robots, while the human worker would have to be "equipped with the requisite skills to manage the robots' operations on a one-to-many scale and to diagnose and troubleshoot any incidents which arise".
Making manufacturing great again
With Industry 4.0, it becomes increasingly clear that a new kind of worker is needed to take on the new type of jobs that would emerge.
Lim Kok Kiang, assistant managing director of Economic Development Board (EDB), says: "As the sector undergoes transformation, the nature of manufacturing jobs is changing as they become more highly skilled, require flexible judgement, and have greater potential for career growth."
Examples of Industry 4.0 jobs include industrial data scientists, robot coordinators, software developers and product leads, and yes, even machine operators.
Randstad's Mr Pace believes that there will be an increasing demand for degree holders in manufacturing as they have the "in-depth knowledge and skills needed to navigate this changing landscape".
"Companies are also more likely to invest in and groom them to become the next business leaders," he adds.
But Mr Tay does not share the view about the need for degree-holders - to him, the key skills needed for Industry 4.0 are digital confidence, ability to make sense of data, problem solving skills and lifelong learning skills.
"Increasingly, workers are also expected to be multi-disciplinarians to handle different operations and processes," he adds.
Observers concur that making the transition into Industry 4.0 has little to do with age or experience, but rather skills and mindsets.
Teh Teik Eng, 48, a senior engineer at precision plastic component manufacturer Sunningdale Tech, is another example of a worker who has moved with the times.
Formerly a manual assembly line operator for 10 years, Mr Teh is now part of a three-man team involved in developing key automation solutions for low- to mid-volume assembly work.
Unlike some other older workers who are reluctantly being dragged by employers into Industry 4.0, he volunteered to spearhead the push into the robotics and automation space.
He had observed that sticking to the same manpower-intensive process was not viable, as operators were difficult to hire, he says.
So he and his team brainstormed to come up with a proposal to use automation in the various work processes.
Armed with knowledge from a robotics course he attended last year and a whole lot of tenacity, his team has since come up with the design for a generic tray changer using a flexible six-axis robot that can be quickly reconfigured to run different products, among many other innovations.
In about a year, they have seen improvements in lead time, quality and productivity.
"Most of it (the required skills), I learnt myself. We made mistakes, but it's a type of learning," Mr Teh says. "Manufacturing is mostly becoming automated. If we don't go into automation, we won't have the opportunity to get new business. We need to try it out. Even if we fail, we must try until we succeed."
The human element
With Singapore's aspirations to be an advanced manufacturing hub, getting workers and employers on the same page will be a crucial step.
The fanciest infrastructure and technology will mean little if there is no viable pool of talent driving Industry 4.0.
Instead of spending all their efforts chasing fresh talent, it is time that employers look at their current workforce as a viable talent pool.
Many workers are understandably distrustful of robots and automation as they believe that their jobs are on the line.
Employers need to do their part to get staff onboard instead of laying all the blame on them if they fail to adapt.
Without some measure of employer support and understanding, Mr Azizul and Mr Teh would not have been able to reach their potential and showcase what they can do.
There are countless programmes and courses that employers can send workers to re-train for the upcoming changes.
There is the SkillsFuture Series for Advanced Manufacturing by the EDB and SkillsFuture Singapore to help workers develop digital confidence and pick up skills such as Industrial IoT and robotics management.
Local robotics and automation solutions provider PBA Group also started the Robotics Application Centre of Excellence (Race), to drive Industry 4.0 in Singapore and the region by conducting relevant courses.
But aside from hard skills, some empathy and understanding from employers will go a long way. Mr Azizul says: "The management has to be supportive, not aggressive. If you want to retrain (staff), you have to assess their capacity and ability.
"Give them the necessary tools and give them time to go step by step. If you throw everything at them at once, they will feel overwhelmed."
He is upfront about his apprehension: "The initial fear was there, I thought: Would I be able to make it? Would I be able to cope? But it's only after I ventured into it that I realised I'm not the only one in these shoes."
Despite his willingness to adapt, he knows that job security is never guaranteed, given today's ever-changing economic climate.
He says: "That cloud is always hanging above our heads. We won't know the situation of the economy and the company in the future, but for now, we are going strong. As long as I am willing to take a chance, I am not so worried."