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The Future of the Manufacturing Workforce

Written by Denise Rice. Denise is the CEO of Peak Performance and the Manufacturing Consultant to the Tennessee Manufacturers Association.She is a former plant manager with nearly 30 years of experience in the manufacturing industry.


Our human nature makes us resistant to change. There is comfort in what is known, what is expected, and how we can deliver. While it’s easy to see how and why we get stuck in our ways, when it comes to the technology sector, we call this stagnation. And it’s not conducive to meeting the needs of the future. That’s where Smart Factory Institute—an exclusive U.S. institute providing manufacturers of all sizes with connections, collaborative relationships, and certifications for improving manufacturing processes and workforce training—can make a crucial difference.


If stagnation isn’t the path forward, let me assure you, neither is mass automation—a mostly fictional future where robots have taken on all the skilled work currently provided by a human workforce. While we are definitely more automated now than we have been at any time in the past, in fact, increased automation actually makes all the more critical a strong, vibrant human workforce with the skills necessary to excel at the highly specialized manufacturing jobs. With that said, a highly skilled workforce is one of the greatest challenges facing Industry 4.0, the high-technology, digitalized, and data-driven transition already underway. Industry 4.0, the period marked by technological advancements that began before the global pandemic and accelerated in response to many societal challenges posed by COVID-19, is significantly impacting the design of manufacturing work and the experience, skills, and competency of the workforce.


The Smart Factory Institute is working to change this dynamic.


Manufacturers lagging in getting their workforce ready to meet the needs of this $2.2 trillion transition need support. While 86 percent of manufacturers say they are doing everything they can to adopt smart factory technology—the intelligent real-time synchronization and optimization of business, physical and digital processes within factories and across the entire value chain—only 25 percent report having confidence their workforce can meet the technological demands. Worse, 73 percent of U.S. manufacturers are not ready for Industry 4.0, which puts our industry at a huge disadvantage, both domestically and globally.


When the greatest projected workforce need is for human-centered technological skills and lack of expertise/skill set is one of the top concerns of manufacturers, those adopting Industry 4.0 technology and processes need to be proactive in ensuring a vibrant workforce for Industry 4.0


There are steps that can be taken in order to prepare for workforce needs and account for technological advancements.


Defining what is a “smart worker.” There needs to be a firm understanding of the critical Knowledge, Skills, Abilities, and Other Competencies (KSAO/C) needed for manufacturing workers to excel. We are working with the University of Tennessee Chattanooga's Industrial-Organizational Psychology Department to do just this—and will provide guidance in the coming months.


Modernizing how companies manage smart workers. Centering talent recruiting, selection, training, and retention around the critical KSAO/Cs of today’s manufacturing worker does not set manufacturing organizations up for success when Industry 4.0 technologies and processes are adopted. We need updated management plans.


Identifying compensation strategies and career advancement opportunities. In what ways should smart factory workers be compensated so that both the worker and the company are effective and successful? What can be reasonably expected immediately post-hire and what needs to be developed on the job/in the organization?


Industry 4.0 is not fantasy; we are deep in this phase of digitalization and associated technologies that are positively affecting design and manufacturing processes—and ultimately increasing productivity and efficiency for organizations that are able to make this transition. With a highly skilled and effectively trained workforce at the core of success, figuring out the needs of and for smart workers is just one way to keep the momentum moving forward.


I invite you to join the Smart Factory Institute on this journey.

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