The Manufacturing Workforce Of The Future

Technology Is Driving Major Change - From Education To Training

The manufacturing industry in the United States is facing a challenge (as if it needs another one) that it can’t avoid and was never going to be able to avoid because of one social factor: demographics.

The population is aging and that means the manufacturing workforce is aging, as well. At the same time the industry suffers from a kind of public relations problem; manufacturing is not considered exciting enough to attract younger workers to fill the roles of the older ones who leave. Those leaving take with them decades of experience in all facets of the manufacturing business: sales, operations, finance, customer service as well as experience on the factory floor.

Since we are all living in a technology-driven world, young people about to leave community college or university are naturally looking for jobs where they will use technology on a daily basis. When these young people about to enter the workforce think of where they’d like to work, they probably don’t think of manufacturing, even though there is more and more sophisticated technology put to use in the industry than ever before.

Promoting A Desire To Learn

So, companies that make things need to promote technology and use it as a magnet to acquire new workers to replace the retiring ones. And they need to do it fast. According to Quality Magazine, an industry publication covering a wide spectrum of manufacturers, technology is rapidly creating new skillsets for which there are not yet enough skilled workers. That creates an output gap in the economy that won’t close any time soon without some changes in how we think about jobs, work and education.

Ravi Kumar, the president of Infosys, an Indian-based global technology consulting firm that helps companies to digitally transform, maintains that there will be a blurring of the lines between employer and employee, employee and work, and government and employer. In other words, he says, digitization and globalization are both accelerating. The result is that whatever skillset someone has today is bound to become obsolete in short order. Further, Heather McGowan, co-author of the book, ‘The Adaptation Advantage’, argues that people can expect to change jobs and professions repeatedly during their working lives. The old ‘learn-to-work’ methodology will cease to exist. In its place, what she calls “work-learn-work-learn”, a repeating cycle.

The key to making these disruptions work for manufacturers, rather than against them, is through an ongoing process of education combined with a desire to continue to learn. While the desire to learn should rightly be the role of education, providing workers with the skillsets required to meet evolving technology is the role of the employer.

Kumar sees a future where post-secondary education institutions are joined at the hip with corporations, allowing students to take just-in-time learning courses or apprenticeships with the companies while company employees can take university courses that align with their work. Northeastern University is already doing this with IBM. The two entities are combining IBM’s in-house education programmes with Northeastern’s academic credentials. IBM employees can take courses that lead to three different professional master’s degrees: data analytics, project management, and portfolio management.

Overcoming Two Demands At The Same Time

What does all this mean for the manufacturing industry? Simply put, manufacturers should consider two demands at once: attract skilled workers with the aspect of continuous learning and align with educational institutions whose curricula parallel manufacturing.

The Covid-19 crisis has only sped up the changes that are happening now in the workplace. Remote work is here to stay; digitization, Kumar argues, is making work more ‘modular’, broken into small packets and distributed to a remote workforce. He goes so far as to say that “work will increasingly get disconnected from companies and jobs and work will get increasingly disconnected from each other.” Machines will do some of the work, an on-site workforce will do some and the rest will be done by remote workers who choose to work from home.

While this may pose some logistical problems for manufacturers, consider the role of such additive technologies like 3D printing; anyone can have a 3D printer reside in their home where they can produce parts for final assembly at a plant. Five years ago, 3D printing was in its infancy; today, more and more companies are using 3D technology in manufacturing.  

3D technology is just one example of how technology in general has wrought major change in the way things are done and made. As manufacturers see their long-time employees retire, they can do so knowing that, if they can embrace a fluid and flexible workforce for the future, they can attract the talent they need, when they need it.

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