23 July 2021

Free access to robotics resources urgently needed to prepare UK’s workforce for 2030

Everyone in the UK should be given free access to high-end robotics resources in order to close the skills gap and ensure everyone has the skills needed to be part of the workforce in 2030, a new report has called for today (Friday 23 July 2021).

A woman holding a tablet looking at a robot on an assembly line
  • Major new white paper calls for urgent action to close the UK’s skills gap in robotics and autonomous systems
  • Report highlights how workplaces are being transformed by robotics and autonomous systems but UK firms are struggling to find workers with basic digital skills
  • One in five UK firms report they are unable to find workers with digital skills while estimates suggest 53 per cent of the working population lack the basic digital skills needed for the workplace, including sharing and attaching documents to an email
  • White paper makes a series of recommendations, including free public access to high-end robotics resources, so the UK can keep pace with the accelerating adoption of robotics and autonomous systems

Everyone in the UK should be given free access to high-end robotics resources in order to close the skills gap and ensure everyone has the skills needed to be part of the workforce in 2030, a new report has called for today (Friday 23 July 2021).

The major new robotics white paper, published by the EPSRC UK Robotics and Autonomous Systems Network (UK-RAS), highlights how robotics and autonomous systems are at the heart of the 4th industrial revolution currently transforming industry and jobs, and the urgent need to prepare the UK’s workforce to work with these technologies.

The report outlines how some of the biggest issues facing our workforce include; a lack of practical hands-on experience of robotics and technical skills at all education levels; limited management understanding of emerging technologies; failure to address diversity and inclusion; and an education system that is struggling to provide the skillsets required by employers.

Major new government initiatives such as the National Retraining Scheme, the Apprenticeship Levy and the Skills Toolkit are welcomed by the white paper, but it calls for more action to prepare the workforce for 2030 and makes a series of recommendations to help the UK keep pace with the accelerating prevalence of robotics and autonomous systems.

The white paper, co-authored by Professor Tony Prescott, Professor of Cognitive Robotics at the University of Sheffield, suggests that free access to robotics resources could be delivered by creating a new, national public repository containing both physical and digital resources.

Robotics Learning Factories - already hugely successful in Germany, the US and Scandinavia - could be established across the country as open and shared learning facilities to give people experience of emerging technologies in realistic settings.

In the US, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) launched a Robotics Learning Factory known as Fablabs that gives the general public access to the university’s state-of-the-art fabrication technology. Due to its success, the model has since been replicated by more than 120 learning factories worldwide.

In Germany, Robotics Learning Factories have served industry well by providing skilled workers in the bespoke specialisms of local manufacturers and, at the same time, providing testing grounds for the latest technologies.

The new white paper highlights how such facilities in the UK could be linked to local mini-hubs situated in libraries or other public buildings. Mini-hubs could span all educational levels, be supported by industry and provide accessible learning experiences for all that accurately reflect emerging work settings. 

Professor Tony Prescott from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Computer Science, said: “Robotics and autonomous systems are no longer science fiction, they are very much in our lives today and are transforming industry. The number of robots has doubled in the last 10 years, more than two million robots are now being used in manufacturing and the service sector and this rate of adoption is expected to accelerate at an even faster rate over the coming years.

“The workplace of 2030 will be a very different environment to what we have seen over the past 10 years. Over three quarters of the 2030 workforce are already in work, but UK firms are already reporting that they are struggling to find workers with basic digital skills and this is only going to get worse if action isn’t taken. With estimates suggesting 53 per cent of the working population lack basic digital skills needed for the workplace, such as sharing and attaching documents to an email, we urgently need to make robotics learning resources accessible to everyone.”

Richard Waterstone, co-author of the white paper and MD of the University of Sheffield robotics spin-out Cyberselves, said: “Just as previous industrial revolutions have been described as a race between education and technology, so the current technological revolution - fuelled by the rapidly developing technologies of robotics, AI, autonomous systems and data science - will require a programme of skills and educational provision that is as innovative, and as urgent, as the technologies that it aims to keep pace with.

“Much of the current digital skills gap in the UK can be traced to a lack of access to cutting-edge technological resources among the current working population and those still in education. We believe that our recommendation to develop and make freely available a public repository of high-level resources through Robotics Learning Factories linked digitally to smaller mini-hubs would be both scalable and affordable, and go a long way to address the digital skills gap in the UK.”

The white paper, Preparing the Workforce for 2030: Skills and Education for Robotics and Autonomous Systems, has been written by;

  • Richard Waterstone – Co-Lead of SERAS, a UK-RAS strategic task group for Skills and Education in Robotics and Autonomous Systems; MD Cyberselves Universal Ltd.
  • Dr Patricia Charlton – Senior Lecturer in AI and Data Science at the Open University
  • David Gibbs – Senior Subject Specialist at the National STEM Learning Centre
  • Professor Tony J Prescott – Chair in Cognitive Robotics at the University of Sheffield; co-lead of the SERAS task group

Read the white paper in full.

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