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Brushing up

Why are human skills so important in the age of machines, automation and digitization?
Oct 30,2017
Supermarkets in Paris ran out of butter after the Chinese developed an insatiable appetite for croissants. At the 44th WorldSkills Competition that closed in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, China sent its largest-ever delegation of 52 members to participate in 47 out of 51 competitions. It won 15 golds and beat the usual winner, South Korea, which won second place with eight golds this time.

The feat came after Chinese President Xi Jinping stressed vocational skills and won the bid to bring the skills Olympiad to Shanghai in 2021. It was only in the previous biennial competition in 2015 when China tasted gold for the first time. It was as if a tsunami arrived, said Jeon Hwa-ick, the head of the 42-member Team Korea and the Global Institute for Transferring Skills.

Xi vowed to make nearly 200 million young Chinese develop passion and abilities in technical skills. China is out to capitalize on its human riches — a population that quadruples South Korea’s. Other emerging economies like Russia and Brazil, blessed with huge land and population, have turned to grooming skilled workers.

Song Shin-keun — a medalist from the 1975 WorldSkills Competition in Spain and president of the Korea Master Technicians Association — also watched the event with awe.

“I began to worry that China, which is outpacing Korea in the fourth industrial revolution technologies and other high-tech industries, will soon dominate traditional fields and technologies as well,” he said.

Since coming in first for the first time in 1977, Korea had topped 19 out of 21 events. “But from now on, second place could become hard,” he said. “Korea is shaky in its defense of its reputation as a skill powerhouse. Graduates from vocational schools get little pay from small and mid-size manufacturers compared with employees of large companies. Quality of life and morale are also poor. More and more shun hard labor. Most of the skills that require hard work go to foreign workers these days.”

Song, who runs Dpeco, a vehicle engineering design and consulting service company, established a training center at the headquarters building in Gumpo, Gyeonggi. The center offered a free 600-hour course on automaking technology for 20 pupils. But it was able to only get six. He had to go around inviting trainees, but was not able to find them.

Why are human skills so important in the age of machines, automation and digitalization? “The essence of the fourth industrial revolution is the convergence of technologies,” Song said. “But without knowledge and strength in traditional technologies, what can we converge? We cannot expect innovative dynamism as we see in the Japanese industrial site. Last year, we built a new office building. The brickwork was poor because skilled workers were hard to find. Korea, which had been a regular on the medal list in the bricklaying category, brought home no medals from the latest event.”

Korea held a homecoming parade for the competition participants in the 1970s. But it no longer pays attention to technicians and labor skills now that it is close to joining the advanced ranks with its per capita income near $30,000.

“Look at Switzerland,” Song said. “The country remained at the third rank in the recent competition with medal counts close to Korea’s. It is highly devoted to craftsmanship because of influence from neighboring Germany. The country also fielded female competitors in the traditional male category of stonemasonry.”

The Swiss stayed true to the belief that there is no high tech without low tech. Automated machines and self-learning artificial intelligence are threatening human jobs, but labor that requires delicate craftsmanship such as carpentry, interior design and web design still need a human touch.

A recent study by Pi-Touch Institute on the fourth industrial revolution’s impact on jobs showed that jobs will be lost that depend on repetitive tasks, in addition to attendance services in places like restaurants. On the other hand, skilled workers’ jobs will remain relatively safe.

The Moon Jae-in government’s innovation agenda is being criticized as ambiguous. It can find the answer it needs in skilled work. Through training and grooming human skills, jobs will be created and income will be increased. The government can achieve its economic goals if it really pitches and promotes such skills.

JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 28, Page 30

*The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Hong Seung-il