The Skills Gap and Manufacturing’s Evolving Workforce
It’s no surprise to industry insiders that manufacturing facilities—and the technical talent within them—have changed.
No longer the dark and dirty caverns of Rust Belt glory days, today’s factories—at least the ones that have kept reasonable pace with changes in the industry in recent years—are clean, efficient, technology-driven operations built for high performance, high productivity, and high satisfaction for workers.
Elements that have made this new breed of manufacturing environment possible include advancements in equipment used on the factory floor, advancements in strategies employed to maintain that equipment, and the Internet of Things (IoT) increasingly being implemented in the industrial arena. Sensors and other types of data acquisition modules like digital oscilloscopes have become robust and affordable enough to allow for consistent, accurate monitoring of machine tools. The employment of these innovations and the resulting acquisition of valuable data allows for analysis that enables the effective application of concepts like preventive and predictive maintenance to greatly reduce downtime and increase productivity.
New technology, new skills, new workers.
These new types of equipment, technologies and concepts within the industrial manufacturing environment have led to a shift in the worker skill mix required to make it all happen. This has resulted in one of the biggest challenges in manufacturing today: the “skills gap” is real — there is a wave of retiring workers with legacy machine tool and factory floor experience, and their in-depth knowledge of functionality, tendencies and problem-solving is irreplaceable. At the same time these workers are retiring, there is a lack of incoming younger workers who are motivated to not only consider the factory environment as a career option (due to long-held negative perceptions) but also have the technology-based skills required to complement the expertise of still-employed legacy workers.
This skills gap has many in manufacturing worried. A recent study by Plant Engineering found that 85% of factory maintenance engineers and executives expressed major concern about the retiring factory workforce and the lack of skilled technicians in the younger generation.
It is clear the optimal mix of skills and workers on today’s factory floor consists of a collaborative effort among legacy workers with functional knowledge of machine tools, and a new breed of younger workers with freshly-ingrained technology savvy required to effectively utilize and maximize today’s advanced equipment and techniques.
In order to create this optimal mix, smart industrial hiring decision-makers are starting early to seek out potential employees with the right credentials for short-term effectiveness and long-term growth potential.
New workers, new credentials.
The same study cited above revealed that seven out of 10 respondents see most future manufacturing jobs requiring at least a 2-year degree; some even feel a 4-year degree will be required in the near future. While that may be an over-reaction, as a degree doesn’t necessarily dictate success at many skilled technician-level positions, it is obvious that young workers who display the eagerness and potential to grow into these types of positions are highly desirable. A degree can be helpful, however, especially in emerging areas such as mechatronics—which comprises a hybrid of mechanical and electronic skills that apply perfectly to today’s industrial environment, its challenges and opportunities.
How does one go about re-crafting and building the right workforce for an industrial manufacturing setting given the trends and challenges described above? Recruiting from technical, vocational and skills-based schools—as opposed to traditional high schools where factory work isn’t encouraged as a career path and four-year degrees are stressed — is a good first step. Reaching out to these young people through partnerships with the right types of technical education entities allows decision-makers to enlighten young people about the “new factory environment”—and all of the excitement and potential for development that offers them.
Another opportunity for recruitment comes by finding those workers—some with low-income or displacement status looking for retraining—who have sought out government and educational grants or internships to jump start or further their working life, despite disadvantaged backgrounds.
Once the right young workers are recruited and hired, ongoing development of these individuals is key. Continuous training, optimally a multi-pronged approach that includes hands-on learning, classroom training and online resources is a great way to provide comprehensive knowledge transfer.
Highly important, too, is ingraining a mentorship mentality within your organization. Again, the collaboration between legacy workers and new young talent is a key component for staffing success. Pairing those workers through a mentorship program is invaluable in producing optimal effectiveness, job satisfaction and retention in all workers — which keeps productivity high and costs low in the long run.
While an influx of the right younger workers is a big part of the goal—it’s one that comes with challenges. It must be understood that these workers are vastly different in terms of work styles and motivations than legacy workers with many years of experience.
Decision-makers and managers must become familiar with and effective in directing and developing young workers by understanding the “millennial mentality.” While legacy workers may be used to and loyal to following tasks and routines because they have been ingrained for many years, younger workers seek to understand why things are done the way they are, and may question old ways while offering interesting new alternatives.
In terms of motivation and reward, legacy workers are more likely to be satisfied with modest advancements every few years; younger workers are used to reaching milestones—personal, career and advancement—within much shorter time frames. They expect recognition and rewards for a job well done to come quickly so the feeling of momentum is strong and consistent. Smart managers will recognize this and implement programs for motivation, advancement and reward that accommodate the expectations of these younger workers, therefore breeding satisfaction and retention. It may seem a bit confusing and tedious at first—but the new energy injected into the organization by these workers, who have been developed in the right way, is well worth the effort to the entire organization in the long run as the industry continues to advance.
Chris Hobbs is the Technical Training Manager for Advanced Technology Services, Inc.