Future-proofing automation: Making the new economy work for people, not robots

Kazuo Okamoto
Businesses need to ensure institutional knowledge doesn’t simply disappear (Source: Getty)

Across developed countries, the number of people reaching retirement age is increasing.

By 2047, the number of elderly people will exceed the number of children for the first time.

In Japan, we already have the highest percentage of people aged over 60 and one of the highest life expectancies. The UK – like other successful economies – now faces similar demographic challenges as the “dependency ratio” (the ratio of dependents to active workers) increases.

Read more: Training the future workforce for an automated tomorrow

A key solution for managing these trends is to boost productivity. Automation offers a chance to do this, but we believe that it must work for people – not just for robots.

As a major industrial manufacturer, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) was an early adopter of automation. Since we first began automating production lines, we have always ensured that the workers affected are retained and switched to other roles within the company. There, they can put their skills to better use, driving further business growth and productivity.

As well as ensuring that the benefits of automation are shared across the business, moving people to other areas of our organisation helps us to retain vital skills and expertise that might otherwise be lost in the process of automation. Businesses like ours will need to tread carefully to ensure that valuable institutional knowledge doesn’t simply disappear.

Automated technologies should be viewed as tools, not as catch-all solutions. It would be shortsighted if companies like ours – which spends years training and investing in our workforce – cast workers aside at the first opportunity.

We should be looking to our employees to spur further innovation and product development. Leading tech companies are already doing this and others can too.

But we are looking to go further. As more people retire, companies will face a growing skills shortage with skilled jobs potentially left unfilled. It is therefore essential to utilise the vast expertise that already exists among senior workers and retirees.

For this reason we recently established MHI Executive Experts, a new company specifically for staff of retirement age and above. The company recruits veteran MHI employees, including engineers, and dispatches them to provide expertise on current projects while also training the next generation of workers.

The initial programme results are very positive, and appear to offer a pragmatic solution to Japan’s skills gap. We plan to expand MHI Executive Experts’ activities to include fields such as sales, legal, and ICT, and are also considering how to trial this successful model at our businesses in Europe.

As demographic and technological shifts continue to mould the new economy, it will be incumbent upon business to be at the forefront of the changes. We must help set standards to ensure that skills are passed down and that automation is implemented responsibly, and to the benefit of broader society.

Companies like ours are already having to think outside the box to tackle these challenges. This will mean better leveraging older workers, addressing skills gaps, improving intelligence sharing and making sure the benefits of automation are felt by the whole workforce.

Read more: Mitsubishi's gearing up for an electric car revolution

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