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The second industrial revolution followed a hundred years later with the introduction of electricity in the industry and the opportunities for mass production. Manual labour was augmented by tools that ran on electricity, helping efficiency in production reach a greater level. This subsequently made way for engineers and specialists to thrive.

The last revolution, 4IR, is often mistaken as a continuation of the third one due to its use of modern technologies. But with its exponential growth and unprecedented scope, 4IR has emerged as its own force to be reckoned with. What distinguishes 4IR is its use of smart technologies, artificial intelligence and the fusion of physical, technological and biological components.

After the mid twentieth century, a new era of digitization was introduced, namely the third industrial revolution. Electronic devices started dominating the workforce, and with their superior computational capabilities, removed human intervention in redundant tasks while creating new opportunities related to the creation and use of computers.

The last revolution, 4IR, is often mistaken as a continuation of the third one due to its use of modern technologies. But with its exponential growth and unprecedented scope, 4IR has emerged as its own force to be reckoned with. What distinguishes 4IR is its use of smart technologies, artificial intelligence and the fusion of physical, technological and biological components. Popular technologies that define 4IR include autonomous vehicles, internet of things, virtual reality, biometric identification, genetic and biomedical engineering, robotics and more. These technologies harbour the potential to disrupt the current industries and businesses by interconnecting intelligent devices and machines that can think and work exactly like, or better than, their human counterparts. By enhancing performance, 4IR will streamline production and services. It will decrease human effort by automating existing processes that require manual labor or predictable actions. While this will ease consumer use, it will most definitely replace human workers in the industries. Balancing out the contrasting effects of 4IR is the biggest challenge for policymakers, organisations and businesses in the future too near.

Professor Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum (WEF), first coined the term fourth industrial revolution. On the effect of 4IR, he said, “The changes are so profound that, from the perspective of human history, there has never been a time of greater promise or potential peril.”

WEF’s report, “Future of Jobs” estimates that about 75 million jobs will be displaced due to the technologies of 4IR. Bangladesh, where the majority of jobs situate in the low-end and manual spectrum, will be affected gravely by this force. The symptoms have already surfaced. The International Labor Organization’s (ILO) report, ‘Asia-Pacific Employment and Social Outlook-2018’ says that unemployment in Bangladesh is on the rise and has doubled in the course of seven years. The Access to Information (a2i) project of the Prime Minister’s Office states that over the past 26 years, 74% employment opportunities have dropped due to automation. In 1990, for every million dollar in export, 545 workers were employed, which dwindled to 142 in 2016.

According to Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), employment growth has decreased in the four years since 2012, with female workers decreasing in number and a 16% cut at the officer level. The CPD survey covered 2000 workers of 193 readymade garment factories, revealing that from 2005 to 2012, the increase in employment growth stood at 4.01%, which, from 2012 to 2016, became 3.3%. This decline in employment rate comes despite the economic growth the country has been enjoying in recent years. Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) reveals that in spite of the average annual economic growth of 6.6% from 2013 to 2017, the annual employment generation rate remained at only 0.9%.

This situation will only grow dire in the coming years, as predicted by a government study titled “4IR: Challenge or Opportunity for Bangladesh?” The study says that at least 5.7 million people in five sectors will face job loss by 2041 and around 73 million people will need to be equipped with 4IR skills to develop a future adaptive labor force by 2041. a2i estimates that 60% of the workers in the readymade garment sector will be losing their jobs, along with 55% in the furniture sector, 40% in the agricultural products processing plants, 20% in the leather industry and 20% in the tourism and hospitality sector.

The country’s youth are the most vulnerable demographic to the changes that will come with 4IR. BBS reveals that 34.3% of the youth are unemployed. A survey report of a local private research organisation Institute of Informatics and Development (IID) says that 84% of the youth feel that their main problem at present is lack of skills and employment, while 28% of them felt that the prevailing educational system hardly helped them in getting jobs. 8% said their education, rather than helping them in employment, became an obstacle instead. The survey was carried out on 11,658 young people in 23 districts of the country in late 2018.

It’s true that because of 4IR, job loss will be a main challenge but we are optimistic that it will create more job opportunities
Md Shahidul Haque

Despite the alarming statistics and estimations about job displacements and massive unemployment, a silver lining comes with 4IR, like all three of its predecessors, in the form of new jobs. Former foreign secretary Md Shahidul Haque says that, “It’s true that because of 4IR, job loss will be a main challenge but we are optimistic that it will create more job opportunities.”

The WEF report shows that a possible 133 million new jobs will be created. Anir Chowdhury, policy advisor of a2i, says, “We need to re-skill some 75 million people within the next 20 years and within this time frame 20 million people need to come under new skill development projects.”

Foreign minister AK Abdul Momen states that, “The rate, scale, and scope of this advancement – also known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution – are yet to be fully analysed and understood. But, one thing is for sure, the first wave of impact will be on our jobs. New jobs, such as medical roboticists, simulation engineers, or future forecasters will surface.”

Furthermore, economist Anu Muhammad states that a complete upheaval of the human workforce is not possible, since the unemployed population will not be able to afford the automated goods and services, which in turn will cease production. He recommends policies and frameworks to be established by the government, in congruence with private sector entrepreneurs, keeping a balance between automation and stable employment.

The insurgence of automations will also not threaten jobs that require human empathy and ingenuity. Jobs where human guidance or care is needed, like that of teachers and nurses, or creative works like that of artists and authors, cannot be overtaken by smart machines, or at the very least, should not be.

Shamsul Alam, senior secretary of General Economics Division, Bangladesh Planning Commission, recommends a plan for transitioning to 4IR. The plan emphasises technology adaption through smart and competitive trade policies fueled by an expansive manufacturing sector and populated by workers who would be educated and trained in the technologies of tomorrow.

In the core of 4IR lies the rise of advanced technologies, and based on the effect of prior industrial revolutions, the need for specialists and engineers adept in those technologies will rise at a similar pace. Emphasis, therefore, should be placed on strategically guiding the existing workforce to adapt while effectively nurturing the future one to excel. This is where the education system and academia steps in.

To tackle the demand for a generation adept in 4IR, the educational structure of today needs to be upgraded. Before higher studies, students should be familiarized, conceptually, with basic STEM curriculum. However, the updated curriculum should not overbear the young minds with a barrage of technical terms and techniques. A school student should not be tasked with perfecting the fundamentals of a programming or scripting language, rather be taught the interesting and fun ways logic and processes, ones they are familiar with in real life, can be structured and configured by themselves.

The most drastic change in curricular structure should be implemented in universities, where the specialization of knowledge and career occurs. A common issue fresh graduates face when embarking on their careers, as seen in IID’s survey findings, is the discrepancy between what they have been taught and what is required of them in their jobs. Sometimes this discrepancy can even halt or harm their employment opportunities. To mollify this discrepancy, quantitative and digital literacy, computing skills and internship opportunities should be integrated in fields that have not conventionally required it.

For integration, the teaching learning methods – syllabus, content, delivery medium – must be upgraded regularly through a continuous quality inspection. Universities must identify how new technologies transformed and evolved the respective job markets for each major or field. Moreover, blended learning should be employed on existing courses, by incorporating media beyond the conventional yet irreplaceable face-to-face one, to make these more practicable and applicable in a 4IR-centric workforce.

For the generation already done with their education and in the workforce right now, top-up trainings should be conducted, to accommodate them with the new demand. Top-up trainings or degrees refer to schooling on a specific subject equivalent to that of the final year of undergraduate studies. This means workers in the middle of their career will spend a dedicated time for educating themselves, augmenting their skills and professional assets.

Norms like life-long educational and skill-development practices must be cultured and embedded in both academia and professions alike. To improve their human resources in terms of technological competence, industry should collaborate with the academia. Other than providing schooling facilities, academia, through research, can instruct the industries in the technologies to learn, how best to integrate these into their current business operations and how to evolve according to the shifting waves of the fast-expanding 4IR.

We, as a nation, are standing at a decisive crossroads where both delaying and hastily adopting 4IR will lead to the same perilous path of missed opportunities and economic unrest. The full potential of 4IR can only be enjoyed through extensive research, smart planning and timely implementation. Conversation and collaboration among policy makers, the industry and academia is the key and very first step to our technological salvation.

* Dr. Kazi Muheymin-Us-Sakib is a professor and former director of Institute of Information Technology, University of Dhaka. Email: [email protected]

* Syed Fatiul Huq is an alumnus graduate student at Institute of Information Technology, University of Dhaka and a PhD admit at the University of California, Irvine. Email: [email protected]

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