Upskilling the UK to seize the 5G opportunities

Holly Marshall, Head of 5G Events at West Midlands 5G, presents insights from her comprehensive research into barriers to 5G upskilling

That demand exceeds supply for digital skills (at least in the desired location) for UK businesses is nothing new. Three years ago international research showed how few adults had high levels of IT proficiency, and it’s hard to imagine things above improved much since. The UK’s digital skills gap was the subject of a recent paper from the CBI which showed that two thirds of UK businesses already have unfilled digital skills vacancies, yet  58% of firms expected to require significantly more digital skills over the next five years.

Unless addressed, things are about to get worse for employers and, therefore, for UK plc.

Following the previous “business re-boots” as a result of Steam, Electricity and Automation, we are now at the beginning of the fourth stage of Industrial Revolution, also known as “Industry 4.0”. This will be a game-changing shift, fusing pervasive connectivity and sensors, robotics (including drones), Artificial Intelligence, Immersive Technology and the Cloud. Industry 4.0 will enable innovation, new business models, increased productivity, improved safety, and drive economic growth across the globe.

That pervasive connectivity will be principally wireless, with 5G front and centre, as the thread enabling it all. But new skills will be required by business to grasp the opportunities ushered in by 5G.

5G will be considerably more complex than previous generations of mobile technology. Networks will be controlled and continuously re-configured by software rather than hardware, and that software will mostly not be resident in the base station equipment.

In our 5G future, everything and everyone worth connecting, will be connected. The Cloud will underpin it all, where millions of Internet Of Things (IOT) devices will deposit data for remote analysis, and taking virtual team collaboration to the next level.

5G’s low latency will enable Robotics, including autonomous loading/unloading, to be safely operated in proximity to fragile humans. Real time inventory, which could encompass items which hadn’t yet left a supplier or were in transit, will take just-in-time delivery to the next level. Enterprise use of drones will become Business As Usual, all of us benefitting from the increased productivity and safety from the resulting predictive maintenance.

The 5G networks enabling Industry 4.0 will be a combination of the existing public networks and private networks, many of which operated by companies who don’t operate cellular networks now (such as systems integrators) with their own supply chains. To support low latency services, data centres will supplement existing remote locations with smaller data centres much closer to end users (human and otherwise) - this could be a new use for some of the charity shops now found on every high street.

But our 5G future won’t be attained unless businesses recognise the opportunities 5G can offer them (the “5G enterprise knowledge gap”), and then understand the skills their employees will need to fully grasp those opportunities (the “5G skills gap”). They are two sides of the same coin.

However, addressing these gaps won’t be easy. Currently most telecoms engineers are not far off retirement (they’re also 90% male), and there is an over reliance on imported talent to mitigate the shortfall in British engineers going into telecoms. In addition to 5G triggering even greater need for digital skills such as data analytics, API integration and Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning, business processes will change and ensuring the resilience of networks and protecting data will arguably become even more important.

These skills have been referred to in the past as “hard” skills – skills that are used for technical applications. But as digital transforms the world of work, social and emotional, or so-called “soft skills” will become ever more important. Communication, negotiation and adaptability skills will be essential in a workforce where operations, for example,  may already be struggling to adjust as an Agile approach spreads beyond software (such as DevOps), with perhaps the ultimate example being Amazon’s ad hoc “2 pizza teams”. The notion of knowing the location and condition of everything, and potentially everyone, involved in a process may take some getting used to.

Huawei is one 5G company addressing these skills concerns here in the UK, with training facilities focussing on more than just installation and control of base station equipment. Of course, other equipment vendors have their academies (if not necessarily in the UK), but the sheer scale of Huawei’s investment in training in the UK is impressive.

Last Friday Huawei inaugurated their 5G Training Centre in Birmingham (a city at the centre of previous Industrial Revolutions), from which the first tranche of 156 engineers graduated in June. Huawei also supports industry through its 5G & Digital talent accelerator and is building the capabilities of more than 20 ICT Academies, a not-for-profit partnership programme to enable academia to offer globally recognised certification courses encompassing 5G foundation knowledge, AI and Cloud – all at no additional cost to students. Perhaps crucial if the UK is to address the 5G enterprise knowledge gap, Huawei is also proposing a Digital mentoring programme for business leaders.

But we cannot leave all of this primarily to one company. The UK needs a “coalition of the willing” to achieve the necessary upskilling, encompassing other 5G companies; industry, the public sector (such as the Digital Catapult); Local Enterprise Partnerships and Digital Skills Partnerships; plus trade associations.

Particularly with an eye to Brexit, UK businesses need to recognise what 5G can do for them, invest in training and cultural change, and not allow other countries to gain a comparative advantage. Now is the time to invest in developing the workforce of the (near) future.

  • Julian McGougan

    Julian McGougan

    Executive Director | Telecoms, Spectrum & Satellite
    T 020 7331 2012

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