The emergence of new-collar jobs with the rise of industrial automation

By Chris Johnson, Head of Global Enterprise Business at Nokia

As digitization becomes the norm for asset-intensive industries, innovators are working toward a future where humans work hand-in-hand with machines. And with one in five workers planning to quit their job in 2022, business leaders may be forced to rethink their labor practices to retain talent and prevent brain drain. Digitization and automation can help reduce labor shortages in these industries.

But how will these new technologies transform the work of the people who do them?

Automation and Wellbeing

In the public debate about automation, it is often assumed that automation destroys jobs. The data generally does not support this. According to Bell Labs Consulting’s The Rise of the New Collar Worker, automation leads to higher productivity, which in turn leads to higher sales, higher wages and shorter hours. The unit price of goods tends to decrease, leading to increased consumption. Because of this, successive industrial revolutions have resulted not in fewer jobs and destitution, as Luddites once feared, but in greater material wealth, shorter hours, and more secure jobs.

increase workers

We see two trends in automation as part of Industry 4.0. The first is the continuation of robotic automation, replacing predictable and dangerous tasks with increasingly intelligent, software-driven physical processes that rely on sensors for enhanced flexibility, mobility, and precision. The analytics software powering this enhanced robotic automation will leverage artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to constantly improve precision, speed, and quality.

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The second trend is worker augmentation. Workers will remotely control equipment such as vehicles, gantry cranes, or shunting motors, and have increasingly sophisticated tools at their disposal to perform tasks—think electronic torque wrenches that digitally control torque, angle, and log data. Augmented Reality (AR) will use multimodal terminals, and wearables like heads-up displays will provide workers with precise task-based knowledge. This replaces on-site training with on-site training and support. Experts and mentors can help remotely, and employees have direct access to context-based knowledge resources.

The intersection of these two trends means that jobs previously thought of as physical will increasingly have a cognitive component. Job classes with a higher proportion of unpredictable tasks that require specialized expertise are more likely to be expanded, while those with a higher proportion of repetitive tasks are likely to be eliminated through automation. The net effect will be overall growth and a shift in the workforce towards “new-collar” jobs.

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agility and resilience

If the 20thth The 20th century was the age of mass production, mass marketing and mass consumption, the 21stSt Century will reward rapid innovation, speed to market and adaptability. Today’s successful industrial companies are adopting development and operational processes more akin to the software industry, with capabilities for rapid innovation and continuous development and optimization.

Meanwhile, external augmentation has already started permeating the workforce as robotic automation and remote work become more prevalent. In the long term, external augmentation will accelerate as augmentation technologies become more sophisticated.


The Industry 4.0 transformation of the workplace – and the worker – is based on a few key technologies: IoT, AI/ML and cloud computing. The increase in the workforce will depend to some extent on all of these tools, but most of all on advances in communications such as 5G. Augmented reality, smart tools, smart PPE, and multimodal terminals are largely enabled by improvements in wireless broadband technologies.

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This means a shift in the communications infrastructure deployed by many industries over the next few years towards a more platform-based communications system – think end-to-end private WiFi based on LTE, 5G and eventually 6G. This industrial-grade wireless platform will also be critical in supporting machine-to-machine communication, remote monitoring and management, and autonomous mobility. Supported by this improved level of connectivity, the next decade will usher in unprecedented shifts in labor force growth, which in turn will lead to significant gains in overall industrial productivity.

The evolution of work

This transformation of the workforce towards hybrid cognitive-physical work will require significant changes in skills and education. The workers of the future will expect some aspects of digitization, so lifelong learning and upskilling are needed to attract these workers and remain competitive. 5G can also be leveraged for AR and VR technologies, which can support both the scale and scope of training and upgrades required. Universities, educators, policymakers, and technology companies need to work with industry partners to ensure the workforce is ready to take on these new, more fulfilling roles.