The fourth industrial revolution has begun and with it, comes changes to the way manufacturing work is done. New technology, such as collaborative robots, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and machine learning, aims to make manufacturing safer, more efficient and faster than ever before. Real-time data collection and completely autonomous lines that can be managed from a tablet off the production floor have left companies and workers wondering where people fit into Industry 4.0.

New technology will still require human workers. According to Rebekah Kowalski, vice president of manufacturing at ManpowerGroup, companies that embrace new technology are growing, which leads to more jobs and different kinds of jobs. Certain jobs may become obsolete, but the demand for labor is too high for large numbers of manufacturing workers to find themselves unemployed.

Much of the new technology is designed to make jobs easier. Robots and cobots can take over tasks that may have been dangerous or harmful to workers. Vison systems and sensors can guarantee a higher level of quality and consistency than a person performing the same inspection tasks. With data analytics and connectivity, maintenance can be performed exactly when it is required, problems can be detected in real-time and waste can be minimized.

New technology will redefine certain roles in both name and skill requirements. Jeannine Kunz, vice president of the SME’s training and development arm, Tooling U-SME, says traditional positions, like manufacturing engineer, that have existed for decades have evolved and now require new knowledge and skills. People may move to adjacent positions that require a similar skill set but reflect the impact of new technology. Certain positions may no longer require a worker to perform physically demanding tasks, which would be taken on by robots and automation. 

The workers who may have certain tasks taken over by new technology will be needed in a different capacity. They will be critical to the transition from manual labor to automation and other technologies. Most manufacturers won’t jump into tech all at once, so workers will need to bridge the gaps between current systems and future technology.

Additionally, new technology will create new jobs. As manufacturers connect to the IIoT, new positions like IIoT engagement manager, developer and application architect are opening up. ManpowerGroup predicts roles like predictive maintenance systems specialist and enterprise digital ethicist will be commonplace in the years to come. There are also jobs that don’t exist yet, but at the current rate of technological progression could become necessary in three to five years.

This shouldn’t be a frightening idea, Jason Tyszko, Vice President, Center for Education and Workforce, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, points out that technology breeds opportunity.

“Technology won’t displace work, it will reinvent it,” he says. “Technology increases the skillset [requirements] which could result in higher paying, more stable jobs.”


Working with the Current Workforce

Currently, the U.S. population is at full employment. With the new skills required to implement, maintain, and use new technology, manufacturers have little choice but to optimize their current workforce. There are many ways to do this that benefit the company and the workers.

General labor roles will be needed to bridge the gap between manual labor and full automation. This will occur on the shop floor, with people working side by side with cobots and other machines, but also should occur in the purchasing and implementation of new systems and technology. The workers with line experience can describe where the most errors occur, what processes are the most physically demanding, or where exactly new technology would be most productive.

While technology may eliminate some of these plant floor labor positions, the people in these positions can provide a company with insight on how companies can equip lines and factories with technology that will increase productivity and efficiency.

“It is extremely important, when transitioning the workforce, to retain the knowledge of the processes from the workers who do them and use that knowledge to build new systems,” says Cyril Perducat, the executive vice president of IoT and digital offers at Schneider Electric.

Technology can be beneficial for production, but people are still the best at connecting with other people. There is an opportunity to transition workers with product knowledge to customer experience focused roles—they may be able to take their previous training to help connect with customers, create service guidelines, troubleshoot problems or even in a sales capacity. Manufacturing will always require emotional intelligence, creativity and cognitive flexibility that only people can provide.

Kowalski suggests that ethical issues will still require people. People will need to make decisions about the use of technology, especially in regards to customer data. This may open up roles that connect data, ethics and quality together in roles to make sure that data is protected.


Training and Career Mapping

The most significant way a company can optimize the workforce is to build on their talent with training and skill development. Workers with experience and knowledge of the manufacturing process can be trained to use new technology, as opposed to being pushed out by it. For example, line workers could be trained to maintain the machines as technicians. Training production workers can assist in the transition from manual labor to automation, as they have the experience to know how the process works.

Management should assess their workers’ skills and talents and train them for their next roles. By using programs like Tooling U-SME’s Competency Framework for Manufacturing Excellence and ManpowerGroup’s MyPath programs, manufacturers can evaluate and build knowledge, skills and abilities to create career pathways for employees. This would look at their skills and knowledge to see where an employee will start, where they will advance and how to get them there. These programs map what is learned on the job and what training may be required.


Bridging the Labor Gap

While training current employees can help fill many newly required positions, some companies may still have to look for outside talent. One possibility is appealing to a younger age bracket. According to Tyszko, 16 to 19 year olds aren’t employed at the same rate as most other age groups. This opens up the opportunity to recruit younger talent and train them to fit the company’s needs. Younger generations are more familiar and efficient with technology, says Perducat, giving them a new baseline of skills.

A growing number of manufacturers are reviving a tried-and-true concept: the apprenticeship. Companies such as Siemens, General Electric,
Festo and Blum Inc. have implemented apprenticeship programs to develop the next-generation of manufacturing workers. Based in Stanley, NC, Blum has been successfully running an apprenticeship program since 1995. A manufacturer of cabinet hardware, Blum created the program with four other local manufacturers.

The program recruits students from 36 area high schools. The four-year program pays apprentices to attend classes at a local community college. Apprentices also receive training at the sponsoring companies’ facilities. Apprentices can train as tool and die makers, electronics technicians, CNC machinists, machine technicians, molding technicians and welders.

Upon completion of the program, the students earn a journeyman’s certificate and an associate’s degree. More importantly, they are guaranteed jobs paying at least $34,000 per year plus benefits.

New talent can also come from other companies in a supply chain. Smaller companies can share the cost of third party training and create a shared talent pool. This would allow for well trained and qualified employees to be shared, creating flow of talent across companies. Contractors are another way to add talent, by having a worker with experience come in to implement and train the employees on new technology for a short period of time.

David Vasko, director of advanced technology at Rockwell Automation, explains that to meet the need for automation technicians Rockwell Automation
and ManpowerGroup have created the Academy of Advanced Manufacturing to train veterans. The program is designed to recruit veterans with relevant skills for three months of paid training. Tyszko suggests manufacturers could create similar programs for recovering addicts and prisoners to utilize every available member of the workforce.

Remote work opportunities could also fill the need of the remaining gaps in manufacturing employment. The level of technology and connectivity can allow certain jobs to be performed anywhere, which could bring in international talent or provide employment to individuals with mobility issues. Vasko suggests that technology, such as augmented reality, could be used by someone in another state or country to solve problems at a factory in real time.


Preparing for Change

Manufacturers can prepare for the changes by being open with employees—let change happen with them not to them. Keeping the workforce involved in implementation of new technology and how it will impact them is crucial as it will allow for a smoother transition. This will give them time to train or find a new position, and also ease the transition by having experienced people working with new technology. Training workers and exposing them to the new technology allows them to be more comfortable and able to work safer, says Perducat.

“Workers that are onboard are more satisfied, and satisfied workers are better for productivity,” says Perducat.

Larger companies should help out smaller supply chain members. Many large OEMs have smaller companies in their supply chains so if the small and midsize companies were to struggle with data security or product quality, it would affect them as well. Investing in the supply chain helps everyone and can allow for a flow of talent and technology that is mutually beneficial. Small and midsize manufacturers should look into manufacturing expansion partnerships for additional support.

Manufacturers should only invest in what is necessary. Consider what technology may be the most beneficial and purposeful. Certain technologies might be more impactful than others. For example, Vasko recommends data analytics tools. The same thought applies to the workforce—manufacturers need to know what skills are required to utilize technology. Investing in current employees may be more profitable than hiring someone new.

“Talent is a competitive advantage,” says Tyszko. Manufacturers should empower employees with opportunities for training and career growth. Investing in the workforce makes them loyal and committed. The workforce, the people can make or break a company.