The Evolving Workforce: The Skills Needed to Propel Manufacturing Forward

Mark Humphlett, Senior Director of Industry and Solution Strategy, Infor manufacturingBy: Mark Humphlett, Senior Director of Industry and Solution Strategy, Infor

Manufacturing Day, October 6, shines a much-deserved spotlight on one of the most critical industry in the U.S. –  manufacturing. The industry employs 12.3 million hard-working men and women, about 9 percent of the total U.S. workforce. Today’s workers are experienced and skilled. They are well-trained, highly valued, and play a vital role in plant productivity. Yet, the topic of jobs in manufacturing draws controversy.

The manufacturing industry lost 5 million jobs since 2000 according to the Economic Policy Institute. Free trade agreements, plants moving overseas, less consumer demand, and automation have received a share of the blame. The subject is often emotionally charged, tangled in political rhetoric, and clouded by distorted facts. But, despite this quagmire, it is important to the industry and the national economy that we understand the state of the modern workforce, skill gaps, and opportunities to improve.

To succeed in the digital era, U.S. manufacturers must have a contingency of right-skilled workers in place who are committed to problem solving, progress, and innovation. To compete globally, U.S. manufacturers must out maneuver low cost competitors in areas such as customer service, innovation, collaboration, and value-added offerings. These are areas where people skills and technology integrate. Manufacturers need a new breed of worker to master these soft skills.

We are not there yet. Manufacturers are scrambling to define the new organizational chart. It must be able to align with demanding customers, respond with agility to market fluctuations, and maintain high standards of quality in high tech components. New titles are popping up, like Chief Digital Officer, Chief Data Officer and Chief Customer Experience Officer. That’s hardly enough. A new way of thinking is required in a digital enterprise, where data drives decisions and connected networks mean visibility is king and silos are gone.

A highly engaged workforce is a necessity. But this is also difficult to achieve when the workforce is stretched thin, with employees filling multiple slots and some positions unfilled. The exodus of retiring baby boomers is leaving positions that are difficult to fill. Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute published a report as early as 2011 which projected retiring baby boomers would leave 3.5 million openings in manufacturing by the end of the decade, with 2 million unfilled positions due to lack of qualified workers. Those projections are holding true.

The types of skills required by manufacturers have evolved, perhaps even more than anticipated. Necessary skills include the traditional manufacturing functions, like welding or machine tooling, but they also include the ability to apply new disruptive technologies, like 3D printing, Internet of Things, predictive analytics, and virtual reality. Data science, predictive algorithms, robotics and machine learning have become essential components of the manufacturing shop floor.

Technology is evolving at such a fast rate that even recent college graduates find their skillsets become obsolete quickly. Continuous learning is required. Many training and education experts recommend that adult students master the “21st century skills” such as team-building, problem solving and conflict resolution, rather than training on a certain machine or operational process. Still, that kind of hands-on, application-specific training is required. Machines and processes on the shop floor are complex. Who is responsible for bringing the new workforce up to speed so productivity is maintained?

Many manufacturers are reinstating apprenticeships and on-the-job training. A new type of post-secondary education is also evolving, filling a void between an engineering degree and vocational school. Such programs will continue to evolve, but manufacturers will undoubtedly need to own the issue and take an active role in shaping the new workforce. Job descriptions will need to be reinvented at a fast pace, as well, placing added stress on the HR department as it tackles how to define, document, train, and evaluate a wide range of new skill sets involved in the digital factory.

But, it is not just a lack of skills that is causing gaps and unfilled positions. Today’s millennial-age graduates are less inclined to choose careers in manufacturing.

A recent poll conducted by the Foundation of Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, says 52% of teenagers have no interest in pursuing a career in manufacturing – calling it “a dirty, dangerous place that requires little thinking or skill from its workers and offers minimal opportunity for personal growth or career advancement.” Manufacturing Day was created to help address such outdated thinking. Last year over 250,000 students participated in tours and events hosted by manufacturers. Post event surveys show 84% of students were more convinced of the value of a career in manufacturing and 64% were motivated to pursue a career in manufacturing.

While these are all steps in the right direction, more work needs to be done to ensure tomorrow’s workforce is ready—and willing. As future-focused, tech-savvy manufacturers turn to digitalization and other disruptive technologies as a strategy for remaining competitive, the right workforce becomes essential. New concepts are the best hope manufacturing has for growth. A new workforce is the key.

Mark Humphlett is the Senior Director of Industry and Solution Strategy responsible for Infor manufacturing.  With more than 20 years in the technology industry and more than 30 years in the manufacturing and distribution industry, Humphlett joined the Infor team through an acquisition in 2006. He previously led supply chain solutions marketing and served as a principal business consultant leading presales, solution design, and implementations for several software solutions. Humphlett earned a bachelor’s degree in Industrial Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Worker standing in front of an American flag.