Are engineers being replaced by robots?

Digitization (does not) eat up jobs

Robots are no competition for thinking people, employment in Germany will increase despite (or thanks to) digitization. This is the result of a new study by the Cologne Institute for Economic Research (IW). Only semi-skilled and unskilled workers will have a harder time asserting themselves against their colleague Robo.

Robots: Don't be afraid of the competition


The good thing about forecasts is that they can be used in a variety of ways. Anyone who agrees with the tenor of a future-oriented study may feel confirmed. If the message is angry, however, statistics can be cited as a flexible instrument and the results can be declared wrong. Egel which way you choose in the following study, we will first introduce you to the perspective of the study authors.

Digitization is not a threat

Horror scenarios, according to which almost half of the jobs are threatened by digital change, are not supported by the results of the IW Cologne. On the contrary: the majority of companies assume that their personnel requirements will increase in the next five years - despite digitization. Above all, skilled workers who have completed vocational training and academics should benefit from the recruitment plans. The survey included both companies whose business activities are directly interwoven with the Internet and the networking of individual means of production, as well as those that have had relatively little contact with digital change.

The companies see a falling need for personnel across all degrees of digitization only among semi-skilled and unskilled workers. For the authors of the study, this leads to a second conclusion, namely that the trend towards higher qualifications, which has been observable on the labor market for years, is continuing. The conclusion of the study authors: There is nothing to worry about. The past has already taught that technical progress has brought more jobs and more prosperity in the end, not less.

A look at competitive studies

In their analysis, the authors of the IW Cologne study refer to the horror scenario of the British scientists Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborn from 2013. However, in contrast to the present study by the Institute of German Economy, this relates to jobs in the USA and the forecasts are based on the next one to two decades, not five years. A comparison therefore seems difficult. So let's look at studies that have adopted the Frey-Osborne prognosis and transferred it to German conditions. There were at least two of them in 2015: one from ING-DiBa and one from the Center for European Economic Research (ZEW) on behalf of the Federal Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs (BMAS). Both come to very different results.

For its study, the direct bank with Dutch roots transferred the assumptions that Frey and Osborne made about the automation of individual occupations to the occupational classification of the Federal Employment Agency. Their result is even more devastating than that of their British colleagues for the USA: In Germany, 59% of jobs in their current form are threatened by digital change, according to the economists at ING-DiBa. Above all office, secretarial and auxiliary workers, but also vehicle drivers, machine operators and industrial mechanics are at risk of being replaced by their colleague robots. On the other hand, academics, qualified specialists and people with personal responsibility have a risk of “only” a little over 10%. This, in turn, is the risk value that the authors of the current IW study assign to semi-skilled and unskilled workers.

The Mannheim economic researchers, on the other hand, consider the fears that technical progress will eliminate humans as a factor of production as unfounded. In the first step of their study, they are not far from the British when they transfer the probability of automation from Frey / Osborne to jobs in Germany. According to this, 42% of employees in Germany worked in a risk occupation. One who is subject to automation.

In the second step, however, the researchers change the tactics. They are not based on professions in Germany, but on activities. Because one project engineer carries out more static-planning and the other more social-interactive activities, so the assumption. And the result is astonishing: In the USA 9% of jobs remain in the red, for Germany it is 12%. Overall employment is therefore by no means endangered - also because the potential of technical automation that has been investigated cannot make any reliable statements about possible employment effects. Technological change, above all digitalization, are developments that will influence the working world of tomorrow. Companies and employees have to adapt to this.

Employment in the jumble of forecasts

As we can see, we don't see anything. At least after reviewing four existing, scientifically developed scenarios, it remains unclear how digitization will affect employment in Germany. On the other hand, it becomes clear that forecasting is a very difficult undertaking - especially when it concerns the future. Unfortunately, there is no accurate record of who said that exactly. The idea of ​​US computer scientist Alan Kay has been passed down with certainty: "The best way to predict the future is to invent the future." That is what futurologists, forecasters and statisticians who make statements about the coming years and decades have to do have internalized a bit.


A contribution by:

  • Lisa Diez-Holz

    The author was content manager for the TechnikKarriere-News-Portal of the VDI Verlag from 2017 to the end of 2019. She previously wrote for VDI nachrichten as an editor.