Technological advances are increasing at a phenomenal rate. This is especially true in the energy sector where innovation is yielding ever increasing energy production yields. How can or should this sector’s manufacturing base assimilate this reality? How does this technology trend mesh with our workforce needs? Do we truly understand how to identify the required attributes, skills, and competencies required of our future employees? Can these be identified and developed through traditional recruiting and educational delivery means? Can they be developed over time with traditional OJT? Will existing company cultures facilitate, or will they hinder?
Are you as tired as I am reading all of the newspaper articles, editorials, and academic economist studies relating to the displacement of workers as a result of the emerging technological advances we are experiencing across our society? Many views are focused on the negative aspects of lost jobs.
In our everyday lives, are we complaining about the productivity increases brought about by our personal devices we all depend on? Yes, I know, it sometimes seems that they limit our freedoms, but think about how they have actually created more and more headroom for leisure activities, new ways to communicate with our friends and family, and more efficient ways to perform mundane or redundant tasks.
In the manufacturing world, we have known for a while that we have no choice but to “double down” by leveraging all of the tools at our disposal. Otherwise, we may as well bolt the front door. Unfortunately many have over the past few decades.
It’s also very frustrating to hear the continuing drumbeat about the shortage of manufacturing workers with the right skills to fill current/future manufacturing job vacancies.
We’ve known about the bow wave of retiring experienced manufacturing workers for some time. We’ve also witnessed the Moores Law-type rate of change in the development of advanced digital manufacturing capabilities. Throughout the downturn in manufacturing, there wasn’t a strong demand signal sent to vocational schools, community colleges and universities. Apprenticeship programs in the US ceased to exist to a large extent.
Many companies forgot how to train and develop new employees, or they were of the belief that the lack of loyalty on both the company and employee sides would mean that they would lose employees they invested in training to other companies. They naively thought that complaining about the problem to the government, local government officials, educational institutions or others would address their shortfall. No wonder we have a crisis.
Let’s get a little baggage out of the way. First, yes, we all know there’s been tremendous disruption in the manufacturing base across America. It isn’t just a US phenomenon even though many people tend to look through narrow fields of view. Whether you choose to call it creative destruction from a technological advance/productivity perspective, globalization, or whether you go to the victimization of mercantilist nations, the facts remain that any business, in any sector, has to constantly reinvent itself lest it perishes due to any number of forces, both external and internal.
Second, many in society have propagated negative stereotypes about jobs in manufacturing. Everyone knows the dirty, dumb, dangerous stories relating to manufacturing. And, most families have had a relative or friend who may have been impacted by a plant closure or offshoring. We seem to have lost a generation of people actually passionate about a career in manufacturing. Many parents, teachers, and the media have reinforced negative stereotypes. Society over-emphasized the need for four-year degrees in lieu of encouraging and reinforcing the pathways to applied skills/trade-based education. Even students who had the natural affinity for these career paths were diverted in other directions. How many of these individuals are possibly now trapped in careers they don’t value?
Third, the term robots is often used to visually communicate the menacing nature of the technological trends underway in manufacturing. The discussion may also turn to driverless vehicles eliminating trucking jobs, AI/artificial intelligence, machine learning, data analytics, etc. Sure, they sound menacing, but many have no way to visualize what these are and whether they are a benefit or an actual threat. People can visualize the traditional manufacturing robot. It shows up in the news clips frequently. In many ways they seem to mimic human beings.
The very first traditional manufacturing robot we think about goes back to when General Motors installed Unimate in 1961. It was a crude hydraulic machine that performed a simple hot/dangerous task in a die casting operation. This job was one that humans were glad to avoid.
Unfortunately most people associate robots with something that looks like a direct replacement for human beings in the workplace. They see the technology as a job killer, not job creator.
Those of you who work every day in manufacturing understand that the technologies available today dwarf the simple pick-and-place or single task robots represented in those news clips. Many want to run away from rather than to technology in the workplace. How wrong they are.
So, where are we? We all know that today’s advanced/smart/digital manufacturing environment demands the application of the correct level of productivity enhancing, quality improving, and human assistance technology that is economically justifiable. This isn’t a new fact. Even the earliest manufacturing operation sought out new hand tools, workholding fixtures, a new form of measurement, or pursued enhanced forms of design and manufacturing documentation.
What is new, and scary, is the rate of change in technology availability and capability we are experiencing today. No wonder this raises concern and fear in those looking on from outside manufacturing. No wonder it scares to death those working in static manufacturing operations today, using skills and manufacturing processes that have not been continuously improved and upgraded over time. This dated manufacturing environment has become, or is rapidly becoming, obsolete.
Unfortunately, it is like a force of nature that without adaptation only bad things will happen. Now, adaptation from a human perspective is doubly hard. People don’t like change. It requires hard work. There are many reasons not to change, including risk of failure. The education and workforce development community resists change along with the rest of us.
We have a divergence going on: The rate of change associated with improved technologies and work methods required in today’s manufacturing environment is clashing with an ill-prepared new manufacturing workforce.
Is there a positive, optimistic approach that can help not only accommodate, but also take advantage of the technological changes underway? Will there be rewarding, career fulfilling, and dependable jobs available in manufacturing in the years to come? How will people be developed in keeping with the needs of tomorrow?
A successful approach will require placing really big bets on the workforce of tomorrow. This bet will require unbelievable tenacity and commitment. It will require running to and not from the robots, and having in place a workforce able to maximize the benefits accruing from these technologies.
Having in place the right people isn’t trivial. I don’t care how many new technologies — AI, machine learning, data analytics tools — emerge, humans will always be at the center of any truly successful manufacturing operation. The new technologies are simply more powerful tools being added to the toolbox. People are required to not only use the tools in their existing toolbox, but also seek out and apply the tools of tomorrow as they become available.
The task is daunting. We all know that the more tools a person needs to master, the longer and steeper the learning curve. The substantial work required involves much more than rote learning.
Static skills just won’t work. Yes, foundational and basic education is still required, but these skills only provide a solid footing on which to build. Too many education and development approaches stop here or assume that the required higher level skills will develop over time with experience and/or will be provided by incremental supplemental organized instructional delivery methods.
Many existing experienced employees may have the wrong mindset or have poor coaching, teaching and mentoring skills, so knowledge transfer dynamics are often compromised.
Realize that underlying the manufacturing foundational skillset is generally a form of innate aptitude not obtained necessarily from reading or instruction. Successful manufacturing contributors benefit greatly from hands-on, mechanical aptitude experiences. Without this perspective, the broad and deep “physics” of manufacturing can’t be meshed with the advanced computational/app-based tools of the future. There’s no need to necessarily try and define physics to the reader in this context because I’m sure each experienced manufacturing professional has his or her own definition in their mind right now.
Our educational and development-centered organizations fundamentally need to change. We cannot wait for academia, the government or somebody else to do the work. The reality is that the K–12, community colleges, universities and internal training and development organizations work best on compelling and clear demand signals couched with extreme urgency. And credibility and trust must be earned along the way to validate any adaptation made.
Think for a minute of the demographics of numerous Silicon Valley successful organizations spinning out a vast array of digital capabilities. For the most part, these companies are staffed with young individuals who have grown up with rapidly evolving technology tools. These young people not only accept technological change, they thrive on it.
Are the “technology native” millennials being hired in your manufacturing operations today comfortable when they join your workplace? If not, why not? It is time for manufacturing companies to create nurturing environments for these new hires.
The only way we can run to, and not from, the required technologies of the future is to have a ready, willing, able and passionate workforce of tomorrow committed to lifelong learning and skill enhancement. They demand that the organizations they work for embrace improvement and positive change. They won’t be satisfied coming to work every day using outdated and obsolete technologies. They want to make a difference and expect to have the tools at their disposal to do so.
Every manufacturing leader must urgently embrace the new reality. Here’s how: commit to pursuing the best technologies for their business with the understanding that even the newly purchased capabilities may not be capable only a few short years down the road. Commit to developing their workforce with a lifecycle viewpoint. Invest in potential employees even back into the K–12 timeframe. Accept the obligation to identify, recruit and retain employees with a long-term view.
Do not emphasize and prioritize lower-common-denominator jobs, even if there is an urgent backfill need. Think of shop-floor jobs as being middle skilled at a minimum. Assume that you will provide your employees lifelong pathways for improvement, growth and achievement. Change your company’s culture to the new reality. Create demand signals throughout the educational pipeline, and do your part to enlighten and motivate the general public, government officials, parents, and teachers and educational institutions.
Every new employee must have not only foundational skills, but a strong bias towards problem-solving, collaboration, team building, critical thinking, and of course continuous improvement. They must be natural technology adopters, not avoiders. If they don’t have this ability, on top of their core talents, competencies, aptitudes, and skills, they won’t be able to properly fit into the ever-changing manufacturing shop floor of the future.
These deep and well-balanced skill needs must be incorporated throughout the educational pipeline. Treat every new hire as if he or she will be key to either making or breaking your future business.
We are living in an amazing new reality with tremendously expanded manufacturing technological capabilities. We realize that embracing, not avoiding, change is what’s required. We appreciate and value that humans will still be at the center of our organizations in the future. We accept that competitive forces will only increase and won’t decrease. And we understand that we have an obligation to help facilitate and influence the right organizational cultural changes to align with the future reality.
Strong demand signals need to be sent to the general public, the media, the financial industry, the politicians, and the parents, teachers, kids, and the educators. Help the naysayers understand that the manufacturing jobs of the future will actually be much more rewarding and secure than they might have imagined.
Humans won’t be working for robots. Help others understand that the middle-high skilled jobs of the future will require rich and deep skillsets with lifelong learning at their core.
These jobs will more than likely yield higher wages. Also, the opportunities for individuals to advance and grow beyond their current responsibilities will be much enhanced. While high school-only educated employee opportunities will diminish, there will be tremendous opportunities for individuals who acquire foundational skills though the two-year schools and apprenticeship programs. And to get to those points, children must be nurtured with ample hands-on, applied, STEM-rich opportunities.